Right now three of our kids are at the veterinarian's office with their dad. This is most likely their last farewell to Sprite, an adorable ferret they've owned for nearly eight years. Sprite is the latest in a long line of adorable (and not-so-adorable) animals who have enriched our children's lives, taught them a few things about love and responsibility, and then taught them one last lesson: How to say goodbye.
The trouble with pets is that no matter how adorable they are as babies, no matter how funny and loyal and intelligent they are (or aren't), no matter what boon companions they are to you and your children: they die. Even the best-cared-for animals usually have far shorter life spans than do humans, and household pets often live only a handful of years. This leaves parents with three choices: buy only Galapagos tortoises for your kids, ban pets altogether, or have a plan to deal with how the death of a beloved pet affects your child.
As childhood traumas go, the death of a pet ranks right up there. A child can be more upset by a pet's death than he is by a relative's. For one thing, he may have spent far more time around Fido than around Uncle Joe; for another, the scope of a pet's death is (comparatively) so much smaller that it is easier for a child to grasp it. (Also, frankly, the dog may be more likable.)
Sad as it is, it is easier for a child to become acquainted with the “circle of life” through the animals that he has loved and helped to care for. We started with fish and worked our way up through gerbils and parakeets to dogs, cats, ferrets and chickens. Boy, back in those early days we had fish funerals that rivaled anything seen on Broadway, with solemn graveside services complete with headstones and some very little, very sad mourners.
It never gets easy to lose a furred or feathered friend (I draw the line at loving fish, myself, no matter how much my dander-allergic husband tries to convince me that they're pets on par with cats), but it does get easier. These occasions give you the chance to talk to your kids about what you believe happens after death, and to reassure them that they gave their pet a good life (you may need to provide some examples of this; guilt at such times can overwhelm a child) and – oh, yes – answer their questions about whether you will ever die.
If you haven't already done so, you need to make a will and appoint guardians for your children. That way, when it occurs to your little one like a thunderbolt that, if Blackie can die, MAYBE MOMMY AND DADDY CAN DIE – you can reassure them that, while you don't plan on going anywhere for a long, long time, if something does happen to you, Auntie Sue and Uncle Don will take care of them. Doing this will bring you enormous peace of mind, as well.
Because you know and I know that Blackie didn't see that car coming, either.
Requiescat In Pace, Sprite. You were loved.