Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pet Death and Preschoolers: Helping my 3 year old deal with losing our cat


Animals and children. Despite that old saying, I love both and think they work very well together. I grew up with lots of pets, and think a pet is great for a growing child.

We got our cat, Millie, when she was at least eight years old, nearly four years before Eleanor came along. As Eleanor got older she noticed her furry playmate more and they rubbed along very nicely together. Millie taught her to be gentle, and gave her someone to practise affection on when she wasn't ready to try it with other children yet. The older she got, the more she doted on Millie.

But about two years ago Millie got very ill. We were told she had liver disease and the survival-beyond-a-year rate was about 50% in younger cats, so the old girl did pretty well to keep going until this August. But that does mean we'd spent nearly two years with the prospect of  'a difficult talk' looming.

This summer, she got a cold. Such a small thing, but she couldn't shake it off. The vet said she never would - antibiotics would just prolong her life. After a few weeks, she was losing weight and struggling to breathe, and she couldn't smell her food enough to eat it. We took the difficult decision to have her euthanised.

We made the decision on a Saturday, so had to wait until Monday before we could take her to the vets. This was helpful, as it meant we could explain things to Eleanor on the Sunday. We had already read her a lovely story called Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, in which it explains that Badger was old and his body didn't work very well, and so he died. We only read it once to Eleanor before Millie died but it helped us to find the words.

I don't actually remember those words now. It was something along the lines of, "You know Millie's very old and has been poorly for a long time? Well, the vet says she won't get better, and she's really suffering and miserable now, so tomorrow we're going to take her to the vet and he's going to help her to die, so she's not uncomfortable any more." That makes it look like I said all of it, but actually as the crier of the family I had to stop short and my husband finished it off.

She had a couple of questions at first, including, confusingly, "Will they come and get her?" When we asked what she meant, that's when the tears started. She was understandably beside herself, simultaneously grabbing at me and pushing me away at the same time. We accepted this and let her cry - we were crying so why shouldn't she? After a while, she asked, "Will the people look after her in Heaven?" As a Christian family we'd talked a bit before about Heaven, and this helped us to understand her previous question. I'm not sure on the theology of animals going to Heaven, but I like to think they do, so I told her that Millie would be looked after in Heaven. If I'm wrong, at least I brought her comfort in that moment.

She ignored Millie for the rest of the day, I suppose trying to distance herself to make it easier. In the morning she was more affectionate and we both gave her a stroke and a cuddle before my husband took her to the vet. We'd discussed whether we should take Eleanor but decided that her seeing us upset could make things worse.

Millie's body came home half an hour later. We let Eleanor look at her, and stroke her to see she was gone. We'd talked to her about the burial in the garden and at first she wanted to help, but when the time came she didn't really know how to act. She didn't like seeing me cry and hovered between the garden and the house as we buried the body. Later on we took her to the garden centre to choose a plant to put over the grave, which I think helped a bit.

Since then, she's had a lot of questions. Even over a month later she is still asking why Millie died. But she isn't upset about it. In fact, aside from that initial outburst, and a night waking when she'd dreamt Millie had come back, she hasn't really shown any upset at all. Her main question has been when we'll get a new pet but we keep putting her off - we haven't moved on as quickly as her!

If you're reading this with the prospect of a difficult talk looming yourself, don't worry too much. Yes, it was hard to explain and yes, her distress at first was hard to see, but she dealt with it far better than we expected. We're glad we told her about the euthanasia before it happened as I think getting chance to say goodbye probably helped. But this has taught me that children, even at three years old, are robust. They can handle big emotions if given the right support and acceptance to deal with them. So don't let worry about how your little one will cope overshadow your time with your beloved pet - they'll probably cope better than you.

2 comments:

  1. Sorry to read about Millie, hope you are all ok. This isn't something we've had to go through (although we're hoping to get a cat soon), but I liked the approach Shirley Hughes takes in Alfie and the Birthday Surprise when the neighbour's cat dies, it's quite matter of fact but at the same time shows that it's ok to feel sad and upset and confused about it all.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, we're all fine now although Eleanor does miss having a furry companion. I wish I'd known about that Shirley Hughes book, we're big Alfie fans so Eleanor might have taken to that a bit better, she was a bit resistant to 'Badger's Parting Gifts' at first although strangely started asking to read it again a few weeks after Millie died. Shirley Hughes really does have the answer to everything, doesn't she?!

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