Dealing With The Death Of A Family Pet Sucks, But Here's How We Coped

by Heather Sadlemire
Originally Published: 
Heather Sadlemire's brown-white family pet cat sitting on a carpet next to a book
Heather Sadlemire

“Well, maybe we should Google it and see what professionals suggest we say to her,” I managed to mutter through tears. “I’m sure there are people smarter than us out there, just writing books on what we should tell her.”

“I’m sure Google is full of things we can tell her,” my husband gently said to me, “but Google can’t tell us what we want her to believe. That’s for us to decide.”

The “her” he was referring to was our 3-year-old-daughter, Amelia. And, crap. He was right.

Earlier that day, he took our 14-year-old cat — and our daughter’s partner in crime — to the vet. There was nothing obviously wrong with her, just a bunch of small things we found concerning: loss of appetite and weight and just a different aura about her.

A quick series of tests led to the worst possible diagnosis, and one we certainly weren’t prepared for: numerous cancerous growths throughout her intestines and fluid buildup surrounding her lungs. A steroid shot could help control the fluid, and although Feeny was not in pain, the shot was a very small Band-Aid to a very big problem, and one that would hold on just long enough to buy her a few days at home to say goodbye to her two feline sisters, her canine companion, and her people before we brought her back to the vet for the last time. (And, yes, she was named Feeny after Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World, although the way names are often manipulated into random, albeit affectionate nicknames, she mostly became Feen-a-reena, or just Reena to us.)

How could I decide what I wanted my daughter to believe about death when I didn’t know what I believed myself? And why didn’t I think of this sooner? I berated myself.

Although my husband and I didn’t actively practice any religion, he grew up Catholic, with a mother who taught his religious ed classes and a grandmother who still attends mass twice a week. Me, on the other hand? Well, I could recite my mother’s “A nun kicked me out of Sunday school for asking who God’s father was” story verbatim for you.

Needless to say, although Santa and the Easter Bunny visited our home annually, any religious overtones my siblings or I heard came from whispers care of our grandparents, because old Italians were afraid that God may smite children for the sins of their fathers. (When I was 3, I sat in the pews at a wedding with my grandparents. During communion, my grandma snuck me a wafer, told me it was a cookie, and stuck it in my mouth. Guess what — it didn’t taste like a cookie. I started to gag, mid-ceremony. My grandpa shot her a death-stare that I remember to this day, and stuck his hand in front of my mouth, where I promptly spit the Body of Christ right out. I thought my grandma was going to die. I didn’t realize why until years later.)

It was important to my husband and his family that our daughter was baptized, so she was. But we hadn’t touched on much since then. And now her cat was about to die. And this cat is her best friend.

There are many days she gets home from preschool and I hear, “Hi, Reena Girl!” before there is a “Hi, Mama!” When she was an infant, Reena would lay next to her on the floor, purring. As a toddler, they’d snuggle on the couch and Reena would fall asleep on her chest. Nowadays, she’ll follow her to the playroom and will happily begrudgingly accept a tiara on her head, a strand of pearls around her neck, and a teacup full of cat treats. “How many cats act like that with a toddler?” my husband and I would laugh with each other. Certainly not our other two cats. Although friendly enough, once the dress-up clothes come out, so do the claws.

We had touched briefly on death a couple of months earlier, when her betta fish was found bottoms-up. She was upset, and tears were shed. She kept asking what “dead” meant, and we sort of danced around it. We said that he wasn’t able to live with us anymore. Ten minutes later, she was over it, although it was clearly on her mind as she continued to mention it to family.

When my husband returned from the vet, visibly upset, we sat down with her and Reena and gave her the news. “Buddy, Reena doesn’t just have a cold like we thought. She has something called cancer. Vets and doctors can help fix a lot of things — colds and earaches and owies — but cancer is really, really hard to fix. There’s no medicine they can give Reena. We’re really sorry, and Mommy and Daddy are really sad about this, but Reena is going to die. That means that she has a couple of days left with us at home, but then she’s not going to live with us anymore, so we are going to spend the next couple of days giving her extra love and snuggles.”

I watched her brown eyes trying to processes this, but they were already distracted by the tears in mine. “Okay. I’m sad about that,” she replied. We told her we were sad too, that it’s okay for her to be sad. And then Amelia went about her evening being over-the-top happy and well-behaved and cheerful, because she is nothing if not consistently empathetic to the needs of others, and in a moment when I, her mother, should have been trying to comfort her, I had my 3-year-old doing everything she could to make me smile.

Later that evening, my husband heard her say, “I’m sorry you’re a little dead, Reena Girl. The fairies will come down and get you soon, okay?” as she gave her a big hug.

After she went to bed, the Google discussion happened. And here we are. I don’t know what I believe. I don’t know how to grieve and mourn while staying strong for my daughter. There are hundreds of books that tell you what’s happening to your kiddo when you’re 24 weeks pregnant and they’re the size of an ear of corn and just cozy inside of you, just chilling and growing their taste buds. People encourage you to read these books. They gift you these books at your shower. But nobody gifts you books to prepare you for all these awful parts of parenting, like what to do when your family pet dies.

In order to teach our children, do we have to figure things out for ourselves first? I’m not sure. I do know how much we all love our Reena Girl, that she will always be a part of our family and inside of our hearts. I guess we will just start there and handle the other parts the way we’ve handled every other step of parenting so far: close our eyes, throw a Hail Mary pass, and then ask Mary for a sympathetic ear and maybe a little bit of help. After all, according to my grandma, Mary knows a thing or two about raising kids. Maybe she’ll know what to do.

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