Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Children and Pets: Learning about Loving and Letting Go

This was a really tough week for our little family.  We lost a special member of our family, our pet kitty - Woody.  He had been sick for nearly a month and his little body just couldn't rebound from his sickness.  We did what we could to try and help him get better, but sometimes things are just out of our hands.

These are the things I keep telling myself.  And others.  And it is all true.  But there is so much more to our story.  And Woody's short story needs to be told.

Woody's Story

We adopted Woody from the local Humane Society last July.  I was still recovering from a miscarriage and was perpetually sad.  When I saw his sweet little face in a post on Facebook, I fell for him.  A friend of mine went out with me to the shelter for a visit and his sweet cuddles and curiosity and LOUD purr drew me in.  I now had to sell the idea to my husband.  I didn't dare tell the kids until I had his blessing.  That weekend we went out to the shelter as a family and Woody came home with us.  He was 8 weeks old.

Woody was exactly what our family needed.  

Woody was instantly a part of our family.  He was cute and very social.  He loved to be wherever we were.  He played with the kids and tolerated their need to hold him and "love on" him.  He loved water.  He even liked to try and get in the tub with the kids at bath time and ALWAYS got into the tub after anyone had taken a bath or shower.  Woody loved to chase the reflection of light on the wall or his red laser pointer.  He had a little blue catnip mouse that he carried everywhere and usually left it in from of my door at night as though he had caught it for me.

Woody was loved deeply by our family.  

And then Woody got sick.  It came on quite subtly.  He was always eating weird things and we had to not only maintain a childproof house for our son, but a kitty-proof house for Woody.  He liked to chew the tips off of q-tips.  He loved toys that were made of foam.  All we can figure from what happened with him is that he ingested some foam beads that our kids play with.  He regurgitated them quickly (aka. nasty mess), but he was never the same after that.  He didn't have a blockage from them, but for whatever reason after that he stopped eating.  We took Woody to the vet and he stayed there for four days before they would let us bring him home.  They did x-rays and gave him fluids.  They sent him home and taught us how to force feed him and give him an antibiotic.  We took him to the vet daily for nearly two weeks for a check of his vitals.  He perked up and started eating a little bit.  We thought he was getting better.  And then he wasn't.  His last day with us he hardly moved all day and could barely walk.  I knew he was still very, very sick.  I took him to the vet the next morning and his liver had failed and he was severely jaundiced.  I made the hard decision that I knew needed to be made.  He was given a tranquilizer to keep him still and calm for "the" shot, but he slipped away in my arms not long after he was given the sedative.  I had made the right decision for him but it was heart-wrenching.

Now, as a family, we are working through the grief of losing our pet who was simply gone too soon.  We only had him in our lives for 10 months.  He was so young.

This is where my lesson comes in for families with pets:

  • Pets are a wonderful way to teach children about responsibility.  The child reaps the rewards of affection from the pet that they care for.  Woody knew the sound of our daughter's voice and when she called him to feed him.  He was always right with her as soon as he heard the rattle of his food in the bowl.  She loved taking care of him.  
  • Children should not be the only ones that are responsible for the pet.  There should be a system of communication about how the pet is being cared for.  It irritated our daughter every day when we asked if Woody had been fed or given fresh water because she was very good about doing it, but it kept a line of communication open so that we all knew he was being cared for.  
  • When a pet's behavior changes, take them to the vet.  It may seem silly.  It may save their life.  I don't think it would have changed the outcome if we had caught Woody's problem sooner, but I will always wonder. 
  • When a pet succumbs to sickness and your child has been an integral part of their care, be prepared for the grief that your child will feel.  They will not only be grieving the loss of their pet, but they may have guilt associated with thinking it was their fault.
  • Your child will ask why their pet had to die.  It's ok to not have an answer for them.  Don't make up something just to make them (or you) feel better. It is better to hold them and cry with them and let them know that you are sad too.  It is OK to say you don't understand why.  It is OK to be sad with them.  I don't have a problem with some of the stories and books that help parents talk about where pets go when they die, but I also don't want to confuse my daughter who is learning about so many hard and important things all at once.
  • Very young children need to know that their pet is gone.  They just don't need the same details.  Our daughter is 7 and very smart and she needed an entirely different explanation about Woody's death than our 3 year old son did.  He heard me say something about Woody getting a shot (when I was on the phone) and he thought that someone had shot him.  He just needed to know that Woody wasn't coming home again and that he had died.  And that he didn't get shot. I purposefully didn't tell him that he "went to sleep" because to a child that takes things literally like my son does, it could have been very confusing.  I also avoided saying that he "wasn't sick anymore" because then he would think that he had gotten better.  It is a tough balancing act, but necessary with two children that loved Woody so much... and so uniquely.  
I will probably think of a million things that I should have done differently through this entire process.  I will always wish that I had noticed something was "off" with Woody sooner than I did.  I will always question how I handled this with our children.  But I do know that in the end, we did all we could do to help Woody and we did the best we could in teaching our children about loving their pet and caring for him.  We showed them that we would go the distance for Woody to try and help him feel better.  We also helped our daughter learn (as we were learning) when it is time to say goodbye.

I am so thankful that we had a couple of more weeks with Woody after we found out how sick he was.  I am thankful he is not suffering any longer but am still sad about losing him.  I will never forget him purring for me as he went to sleep in my arms for the last time, his paw draped over my hand.  I will never forget that the veterinarian and nurses who had tried so hard for weeks to help him, cried right along with me as he slipped away.