What my toddler taught me about grief and grace after our first pet death

Guest post by Whitney Gronski-Buffa

After a long time together and a short, aggressive bout with cancer, we made the difficult decision to euthanize our cat, Lulu, on Saturday.

I tried to be pragmatic about it. “She’s old,” I reasoned.

I tried to keep perspective. “Everything dies eventually,” my most nihilist self whispered.

But when x-rays confirmed the worst, I lost it. When it came time to make that last car ride, I was a tear-streaked mess.

And I worried about my daughter, Olivia. I wondered how she would process this, her first real experience with personal loss. How do you explain death to a 3-year-old? I Googled, and I found this, and I tried to keep talking to her about what was going on, from diagnosis to death. That helped.

Olivia and Lulu_1

Now, just three days out, I’m learning what people mean when they say kids are resilient. Now I’m the one learning how to cope with this loss, thanks to Olivia.

Here’s what she’s shown me so far.

++ Say what you feel. Keep it real.
Olivia says: “I am feelin’ angry today because my Louis cat is not at my house anymore!”

For Olivia, there have been a few moments where she very clearly realized what was going on and how she felt about it. The morning of the euthanasia appointment, we dropped her off at our favorite neighbor’s house. He asked her how she was doing, and she laid the truth on him. Angry, because Lulu would be gone.

We had another moment the next day as she filled the  cats’ dishes. “Some for Manly, some for Penny and some for Lulu…” she said. “No,” I reminded her. “Lulu isn’t here anymore, remember?”

She threw down the food scoop, crossed her arms and said, “I don’t like that! It makes me angry!” I stopped what I was doing, picked her up for a big hug, and we talked it out. We both had a few tears, said how we felt, and talked about peace in death. This sucks, but I think it’s important to honor your feelings, especially when you’re modeling grief for your kid.

++ Accept the facts, and be gracious for what’s still good.
Olivia says: “Now I just have two cats.”

When we came home after the appointment, we sat Olivia down and told her the truth. “You know how Louie has been really sick lately? Well, she was too sick. She couldn’t get better and today she died,” I explained.

Olivia looked around a bit, tilted her head to her shoulder and plainly said, “Now I just have two cats.” Then she went off to play.

Damn. It’s simple, but there’s a lot there! She’s acknowledging the reality of the situation, but still appreciative of what she has.

All weekend long, she’s been doting on the other two cats, who have never held a candle to Lulu in her eyes. But they’re the cats she’s stuck with now, and she’s trying to make the best of it. Pretty humbling, if I’m being honest.

++ Keep memories near by.
Olivia says: “We can bury her by the swing set, and plant flowers.”

Burying Lulu by the swingset was Olivia’s idea around the time we found out how sick she was. So our plan is to do exactly that — we’ll get some shade-loving flowers, maybe a tree, and a little memorial rock and keep Lulu close to where we spent the most time. She’ll never be far from our memories, and I think that sets a great precedent for any loss Olivia encounters in her future.

I talked a lot about this with a friend (who happens to be a psychologist) before Lulu died. He’s an animal lover like me, and expecting his first child soon, and we agreed on one big point: When you have kids, your pets’ roles change. Yes, they’re companions and fun to have around. They’re also in our lives to teach us compassion and, ultimately, about loss. They provide our children with a bit of entry-level grieving, and the way we respond to this type of death lays a foundation for future big life experiences.

If you can get the death of a cat right, you just might be able to apply those lessons learned to tougher stuff later on.


WhitneyWhitney Gronski-Buffa is a freelance reporter and stay-at-home mom. You can follow her on Twitter @whitneymae.

About Karin

Journalist, singer, reader, movie fanatic, photography buff, GVSU alum, wanna-be-Brit, Crohn's fighter, Coca-Cola addict, animal lover, not a kid person, hater of winter, Michigander
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