We come in the house from a day out, and my two younger sons open the kitchen gate, the one that keeps the dogs from the counters and other unsavory pursuits.
“Mingus, Mingus,” they shout at our elderly Boxer. My 4-year-old throws his arms around her neck. “We missed you, Mingus,” he says. The stump of her tail wiggles furiously at him. The other two dogs swarm at our feet, but it’s Mingus they want, her once-proud brown spots worn to white, like a stuffie who’s been loved too much.
When we were on vacation, my kids missed her so much they cried. And now our dog is dying, and I don’t know what to do.
Okay, she’s not knocking on Heaven’s door just yet and she isn’t in pain, but Mingus is riddled with tumors. Some days, her eyes point in different directions. This is hilarious and terrible at the same time, a sign of both the never-the-brightest-bulb-on-the-Christmas-tree Boxer who used to bark at tree stumps and an impending mortality I don’t know how to cope with.
Mingus doesn’t like to go outside much, though at one time she would spend joyous hours running with our other dogs and delicately pulling jalapeno peppers off the bush, crunching them, spitting them out, barking furiously, then trying another. Never the cleverest dog, but sweet as the day is long. Boxers are like that.
Boxers also aren’t known for their longevity. And we are staring it in the face with three adoring kids in tow.
We got Mingus before we had our kids. Boxers are good-natured dogs, fun and funny and good with kids, so we adopted her from a local rescue, tail already docked. Our oldest son loved her, but never as much as my younger sons. They watch TV with their bodies draped over her, or with the butts against her and legs curled up and over her back, or their heads propped against her side.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to. I pray that dog wakes up every morning the way prehistoric people prayed that the sun would rise again: furiously, desperately, with a breath of doubt. And I am still lost as to how to tell my sons.
We’ve tried to drop hints: “You know Mingus is old,” we say often. “She is tired.” But we haven’t gotten to the dreaded d-word, haven’t gone so far as to say, “One day, Mingus will die.” Because if Mingus can die, then anything can die, then I can die, then they will die. She will teach them the meaning of mortality, this dog that snoozes next to me. That dreaded lesson of childhood, the worst of all knowledge: Everything dies. Nothing is permanent. Life runs though our fingers, seeps away from us.
“The loss of a family pet is a very real issue for all family members, but hits especially hard on kids, who may have had the pet their entire lives,” says Jamie Dana, MC, LPC, a mental health counselor in Phoenix that specializes in children and teens. “The family dog is often a marker of time and symbolizes the transitions their family has gone through.”
All the therapists agreed about the need to talk and talk some more about the death of a beloved pet. Ari Hoffman, LPC, a psychotherapist in Denver, explains it this way: “While, as parents, we wish we could save our children from all of the pains of the world including the pain and sadness of loss, we are doing them an even bigger favor by teaching and modeling that it’s healthy to feel those emotions. So how do we do that? By increasing our vulnerability.”
Kids need space to grieve. Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW, and author of The Grief Workbook and Someone Is Sick – How Do I Say Goodbye? says that, “When I work with kiddos expecting a death I use honest language, and real language. ‘Have you noticed that Nanny is slowing down/losing weight/not eating as much/can’t play like she used to? She’s not well. In fact, she is sick, and we have to start getting ready to say goodbye.'”
This will, of course, probably bring you to tears. That’s okay. Hoffman says we need to let our kids see us cry, get angry about the loss, feel pain, and yes, use the dreaded d-word. “The greatest way to teach children anything is to do it ourselves so think about what you want your kids to do and do the same. It takes a good leader to always be strong, it takes a great leader to lead even while vulnerable or compromised. Be a great leader.”
Johnson-Young affirms that dealing with the death of a pet will help them learn about death, life, and treasuring memories. “It’s the best way to help them deal with loss as adults.”
Johnson-Young suggests that we begin the process of grieving while Mingus is still around — before that last trip to the vet. “I would encourage some sort of goodbye while she is still alive, like an ‘I love you circle’ where you all pet her and tell her what memories you will always have of her. If you have a belief in an afterlife, then pets go to heaven. Reassure them that you are not as old as [Mingus], and that you are well and will not be dying. Allow them to process. Do not spring this on them at the last moment.”
Tracee Dunblazier, a certified grief counselor from Los Angeles, says, “Deal directly with the ‘where we go when we die’ question with whatever your belief is, and if you don’t know, it’s okay to say it.”
So we need to talk. And talk. And talk. And not in one big spurt, but in small moments, in passing, in space that allows children to ask questions and feel big feelings and see our big feelings as well. Death is hard. Death can be scary. And teaching your children about death can feel like a shattering of childhood innocence.
But it need not be that way. If we prepare them for it, and then walk them through it as “good leaders,” it can be a formative experience that teaches them how to process emotion and grieve as adults. Because, let’s face it: people die. Your children will need to know how to grieve.
But we all need help talking. Kelsey Torgerson, MSW, LCSW, who works out of St. Louis and specializes in childhood stress management, recommends these books from Sesame Street as great resources for kids, as well as Badger’s Parting Giftand The Invisible String. Johnson-Young says that the movie “Coco” can help a lot: it’s all about how “remembering those who die means keeping them alive.”
So we’ve been seeding the ideas to the kids. “You know, Mingus is old,” I might say in passing. “And sometimes, when we get old, our bodies give out and we die. It’s very sad, but we go to heaven to be with God,” because that’s our particular religious belief.
So far, we’ve gotten a lot of nodding from the 6-year-0ld and a lot of wailing, “But I don’t want Mingus to die!” from the 4-year old. Then he clings to her for a while afterwards.
I try to be a good leader: “I don’t want her to die either, Buddy,” I say. “But I can’t stop it. Sometimes the things we love die, and it can make us sad and mad and confused. We have to hold on to the good times we have and love our puppies while they’re with us. Now go give Mingus some pets and love.”
And he clings to her neck as if he will never let go, as if he can stop her leaving by the sheer force of his 4-year-old love. And I wish he could. I wish it were that easy.