We have the worst luck with pets.
Dog number one. We had to give her up because she kept running away.
Dog number two. Became food aggressive with kid vomit and bit my husband. We had to surrender him to the humane society.
Lizard. My son caught “Lizzy” in our yard and designed a lovely terrarium for the randomly-assigned “her.” She lived her life span adored, sunning herself under her own heat lamp and feasting on bits of banana. My son was devastated when she died.
Dwarf hamster. Our most recent, and possibly cutest, pet. She loved corn and green beans and rolling like mad in her hamster ball (or the rolling drove her mad as she desperately tried to seek refuge in the darkest corner she could find…). We hadn’t had her three months before my husband, um, found her. And what’s worse is the kids and I were out-of-state and learned the bad news from a text message gone wrong:
Dad: We have a problem (sheepish emoji face).
Dad: Make sure the kids are looking over your shoulder.
Dad: Peanut died.
Whoops. My husband felt so bad, first because Peanut died under his watch and second because he meant to text “aren’t” instead of “are.”
Even though there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can take away the sadness and grief of losing a beloved pet, my husband and I tried our darnedest to find something comforting to say that would belay the tears. Some words came easier than others. Like when my son said, “I hope Dad is joking,” the response was an easy one:
Oh, no, Dad would never tease you about something like this.
But trying to reassure my kids they did nothing to cause Peanut’s demise was a bigger task (you fed her, you gave her fresh water…really, you took awesome care of her). Discussing hamster afterlife (what do you think hamster heaven is like?) was surreal. But the biggest challenge, because they aren’t (definitely not are) emotionally or mentally ready to understand, was telling our kids it’s ok to find joy in the day to day despite their feelings of sadness and loss.
This is a sophisticated balance of emotions…we adults struggle with joy interrupting grief because another difficult emotion sets in, guilt. We’re human and to feel anything but sadness in a sad time is to dishonor the loved one we have lost. Kids get that once they reach a certain age. My 11 year old son seems to. Maybe that’s young or maybe it’s not. No matter what, it’s a tough way to feel.
And it’s even tougher to give ourselves the permission to feel happy.
I found myself assigning human qualities to Peanut, hoping she could give our kids that very permission to enjoy legos, splash in the pool and play arcade games.
You gave Peanut a good life. She would want you to be happy, too.
She loved to play. She would want you to do the same.
Corny? Perhaps. But I know there will be more pets. Like the three (not one, not two, but, yes, three) betta fish my son says he can afford. Like the puppy I know we will get once the time is right. We will not have those future companions forever. And sadly, there is the inevitable reality that we will lose the important and most-loved humans in our lives.
My kids need the go-ahead to feel joy through grief, be reassured that joy helps heal the hurt and that we honor our loved ones’ by living life the best we can.