How My Kids Helped Me Deal with the Loss of Our Beloved Cat

Apr 18, 2017

Late last September, our beloved Noelle died. A rescue we adopted a dozen years ago, she was such a huge part of our lives before and after we started a family. Noelle woke us up every morning and claimed our bed every night; she gave kisses, loved cardboard boxes and hated thunderstorms.

When we brought home a second cat, Noelle was annoyed but forgave us. When we brought home one screaming baby, and then another, she eventually came back around.

Having kids means grieving occasionally gets put on hold. We still needed to get them ready for school or preschool. We still needed to have silly dance parties and trips to the playground.

Pets are great for kids because they teach empathy and responsibility. But kids aren’t always great for pets. Still, she was patient with ours; she’d accept rough hugs and loud shrieks, and only hissed when running away didn’t work.

My wife and I knew our cat’s health had been declining, so we started discussing how we’d break the news to the kids when it finally happened. (We even ran through worst-case scenarios — what happens if one of the kids finds her ‘sleeping?’) Luckily, this was our children’s first exposure to death. We knew there would be questions and we weren’t sure how to handle them. But here’s the thing — I was so wrapped up in preparing how to help my kids react that I didn’t think about how I would react.

Recommended Reading: On Broken Things and Parenthood

When another vet appointment had results worse than we feared, we made the decision. We dropped the kids off at their grandparents and spent the entire afternoon ugly-crying at home with Noelle. The vet stayed open late and we went in one last time. Then, we pulled ourselves together and went to pick up the kids.

I remembered seeing that episode of Sesame Street where Mr. Hooper dies. (The actor, Will Lee, passed away and they transformed it into a powerful, teachable moment for kids. Click here, but, uh, have tissues ready.) It’s sad, but it’s also very direct and honest and unknowing, and I really liked that.

We just explained she was here, but now she wasn’t, and we’d always miss her, but we all would keep on going.

We told them Noelle was dead. Our 6.5-year-old daughter was solemn, and our 2.5-year-old son didn’t fully get it. Beforehand, my wife and I discussed how we were not going to say our cat had been sick (we didn’t want the kids to get worried every time someone got a cold) and we were not going to describe death as “going to sleep, but not waking up” (bedtime is hard enough as is).

We just explained she was here, but now she wasn’t, and we’d always miss her, but we all would keep on going. It was OK to be mad or sad. Tomorrow, we’d pick out a photo to frame so we’d always remember her.

The beloved cat, Noelle.

Having kids means grieving occasionally gets put on hold. We still needed to get them ready for school or preschool. We still needed to have silly dance parties and trips to the playground, and help with reading.

Our daughter would have lots more questions about death in the weeks that followed:

  • Why did Noelle die? (“Cats don’t live as long as people. Every animal is different. Some sharks live for hundreds of years and some bugs only live for one day!”)
  • Is she still hurt? (“Nope.”)
  • Are you sad? (“Yes. But not as much as I was. I still miss her.”)
  • Will our other cat die? (“Eventually. But our job is to make her happy and comfortable until then.”)
  • Do people die? (“Yes, everyone does, eventually. But not for a long, long time.” [She accepted this one pretty quickly, but it’ll probably eventually come back.])

For me, I found answering these questions, breaking out the mysteries of mortality in kid-sized portions, helped me process things for myself, too. Being able to tell my children I was still a little down — and reminding them this was OK — also made me feel better.

Every family will approach loss in different ways, depending on not only the specifics of the circumstance, but also their own philosophies. Whether a pet or a person, there’s no right way to grieve, although there are bereavement experts out there who can help you if you’re worried about how you or your children are coping. Ultimately, it’s always nice when parents can help their kids, and, whether they realize it or not, kids can also help their parents.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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