I have always felt that it was a really good idea for children to experience the benefits of having pets, and also the loss of pets. Small losses give them some coping mechanisms for the large losses they may face as they grow older. I’m a farmer’s daughter, so I’ve seen (and eaten) birth, life and death of animals, even pets. So we’ve had pets; guinea pigs and cats being the chosen ones, given that we live in the city and not on a farm.
The first guinea pig death was hard, but OK. We hadn’t had the guinea pig long, the children were upset, but not inconsolably so, and we replaced the guinea pig. Then one escaped (or was let out by a neighbour’s child). We’d had this one for longer and it was a lovely guinea pig. Friendly, tame, and the child who belonged to it had spent a lot of time holding it and making it extremely tame. That was a hard loss and it took time to get over it. Then there were the inexplicable deaths – guinea pigs are apparently fragile creatures. There have been a lot of rose bushes planted in our garden over the corpses of our beloved pets. I was reasonably OK with all of this, although I cried with the children and sympathised with their losses.
Every now and again, an animal comes along who has a strong bond with a child or a person. One of my sons had a guinea pig with whom the mutual admiration society didn’t ever stop. They played together, watched TV together and spent lots of time together. Midnight was lovely and calm and tame, and they simply clicked from the first moment they laid eyes on each other. We had Midnight for 18 months and she was a much-loved furry friend. One afternoon we came home from school and she was lying in the cage twitching and if she was a person, I would say she had had a stroke. With many tears, and hugs, my boy said goodbye to her. Even at the end, when he was holding her, she was chirruping up at him as if to say “It’s OK, I’ll be OK”. Her death resulted in tears from all of us, not least because our boy was so upset.
And then there was our lovely cat, Pharaoh. He was originally a flatmate’s, but I’d inherited him, and he’d been around for as long as any of the children. He was tolerant of small children, active, affectionate, an excellent hunter and very loved. And then he got sick. We had to make the heartbreaking decision to put him to sleep. Again, part of the depth of my upset is because of the level of hurt and upset the children felt. We are still not entirely over it, despite the addition of two lovely little bundles of fluff who have made their own places in our hearts.
I find I am very anxious about our new arrivals. We kept them inside far longer than I ever have done before with new cats. We nervously search for them if we don’t see them for a few hours. I worry about them constantly. And then I worry about children. If the death of our loved pets is this hard on me, how hard is it on our children? Yes, these small losses help to prepare them for the bigger ones, but are they either making them scared of death, or is it teaching them to put a small wall between themselves and those they care for with every loss? Or is that just a part of life? That we gradually grow a thicker shell to cope with the ups and downs so that we don’t feel everything so passionately and intensely.
My only consolation in this is that when I look back to my own childhood, I remember the joy and love I had with my pets, and I don’t seem to remember the loss of them. So I’m hoping that the kids will be the same. And that I will survive the next loss we have, because the older I get, the harder it gets to say goodbye.
How do you feel about pets? Do you have any? And have you had to deal with the loss of pets with your kids – what did you do or say?