I Completely Botched Our Pet's Death

A warning: learn from my mistake, friends.

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I’m part of a pet family. We’ve had a snail colony and a beloved bearded dragon named Ender. We’ve lost a hamster in our house, had an aquarium randomly shatter as we scrambled to save our beta fish, and our backyard is littered with dog toys from our two pandemic puppies. But somehow, we’d never faced the death of a pet until our cat Zuri had to be euthanized unexpectedly, at just 4 years old.

As a parent, I often draw on my own childhood experiences to help my kids navigate difficult situations, but I found this one to be exceedingly difficult. I grew up on a hobby farm with even more animals than we have now, including strays that showed up and barn kittens people dropped alongside the road. Many of my peers raised piglets or calves from birth and then sold them — by the pound — at the county fair. Pet death, while always difficult, was a more regular part of my childhood. Needless to say, I was wholly unprepared to help my kids navigate this situation. As with all new parenting challenges, we bumbled through it and just prayed we didn’t scar our kids too badly.

We did have some time to say goodbye, and I feel good about giving our kids each the choice to hold her and snuggle her a bit — which they all opted to do, even though she did not seem herself. My husband then took her to the vet while I stayed with the kids. We processed it with ice cream and a distracting movie. The next couple of days involved random bouts of tears and sadness, but lots of smiles too. Kids are good at compartmentalizing their feelings, so this is actually pretty normal and can even protect them from being too overwhelmed by strong emotions.

Then it got weird.

A few weeks later, we got the call to pick up her ashes from the vet. My husband brought home a little velvet sack embroidered with the words “Until we meet again at the Rainbow Bridge” and a paw print the vet had made. This made it all very real for my kids once again, and we dealt with another round of grief and sadness. And then, while I was placing the bag in a safe spot, my 10-year-old daughter asked if she could see the ashes. Two of my other kids said they wanted to see, too.

I admit I had a moment of hesitation — but I decided that maybe this would feel concrete and final, and even help them through their grief. I briefly explained the process and what the ashes would look like. You know, a bag of gray dust just like in every movie I’ve ever watched involving ashes.

Friends, I was incorrect.

The contents of our little bag contained not just dust but many small shards of bone and teeth. My kids began to cry in horror as I slammed the bag shut and began to apologize for my rash decision. We were able to calm the kids down; I admitted to them that I was also surprised at the contents. I posted on X about my mishap, and thousands of people began to chime in with similar experiences and helpful information about the cremation process. A few people questioned my parenting: how could I have so rashly made a decision to show them something so upsetting?

The truth is, parenting is often like that. It rarely looks like the script in a parenting book and most difficult moments require a quick and off-the-cuff response without any moments to scroll through reels of grief tips or check out a helpful library book for some bibliotherapy.

Rather than berate myself (or let the internet berate me) we learned from it. We talked about what cremation is, how it works, and why it may not look like it does in the movies. My kids like details, so we even got into the specifics like temperature and did an image search to see what the oven might look like. While I questioned myself every step of the way, I let my kids lead — and it seemed to work.

A few months after our loss, my kids seem okay. We are now beginning to look for a new cat to add to our family, but we are taking our time. They’ve all had moments where they express worry that a new cat might die, too. I can’t guarantee that it won’t — just the opposite, actually. We’ve talked about the fact that humans just live longer than pets (my 5-year-old pointed out this would not be true if we just let her get a sea turtle, but I digress). We also talked about the fact that it’s worth it to love them anyway, while they are with us. And the next time we experience a loss like this we will all be a bit better prepared.

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.

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