Friday, June 11, 2010

Mommy, Is Kitty Still Died?

I have a lot to say on the topic of kids and death tonight, so if you've recently experienced a loss of any kind, from a cat to a loved one, you might want to proceed with caution or come back later.  I don't want to say anything that's going to cause you pain, but since I don't know your particular situation, I'm just going to have to trust you to click that red X if you can't handle a (fairly irreverent) monologue about death right now.

First of all, all the books about death for kids suck.  I need to write my own.  I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday after endless questions about the cat to try to find something to help the girls understand that Daddy couldn't fix kitty (after all, he fixes their toys, he is the Fixer of All Things, why wouldn't he be able to fix kitty?!) and that death isn't something you get better from (Claire said, as she patted my arm, "Kitty be all better tomorrow, Mommy.")

I was looking for Elmo's Pet Frog Croaks or something.  Instead I got to read a bunch of books that were way above my kids' pay grade.  One memorable one even had a line that said something like, "Sometimes someone you love may get really sad and kill himself or 'take his own life.'  This is called 'suicide...'"  Um, no.  Not for the preschool set, obviously.

I eventually settled on Lifetimes, a rather artsy-fartsy description of how everything is born and everything dies, and the in between part is called living.  It was repetitive (like a board book, so a familiar presentation), but light on actual concrete information such as, "Kitty isn't going to rise again in three days and have a big party with an egg hunt and lots of chocolate."  What?  Easter is their primary experience with talking about dying at this point.

I also bought When A Pet Dies (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood First Experiences Book).  It was the 1970s disco version.  I found it oddly comforting, since Mister Rogers was practically family, and since the leisure suits and mustaches of the 70s still speak to my inner child.  The kids, however, were less than enthralled.

(By the way, those are affiliate links.  I'm shamelessly profiting from my cat's death and the grief of my children.  This is probably a new low, but hey, you guys haven't been clicking through like you used to and Mommy's e-book budget is thin).

Where was I?  Oh, so the books sucked, but what sucked even more was standing in B&N reading all of the options to find the best (or the least horrible) one, bawling my eyes out.  I seriously went through a half a pocket pack of Kleenex.  The front of my shirt was all polka dotted with tears.  Fortunately they weren't busy, because I made quite the snotty fool of myself.

The other part of yesterday that profoundly sucked was the endless interrogation.  I mean, I expected questions.  I was prepared for a conversation.  I didn't expect the conversation to go on for the entire day.  Just when I'd put it out of my mind, they'd ask me some question they'd already asked 50 times, and it would all come back like a Mack truck.  I know, it's a cat, and I even said several times, "I understand that this is a disproportionate response..." to BJ, but I didn't get a single minute to put it aside all day.

And it didn't help that when the kids asked things like, "What is the vet going to do with Kitty's body?" my mental imagery immediately went to some Nazi-mustached vet tech throwing Kitty's stiff, lifeless corpse onto the top of a blazing inferno of other animal corpses.  (We had her cremated.  I didn't want to bury her in the yard only to have some neighborhood critter come and dig her back up again.  That would be traumatic.  So, the vet's office sent her off to be cremated in a batch and not returned to us as ashes because I am not the ashes-on-the-mantle type.  No offense to those who are, it just gives me the creeps.)  So, the kid asks a perfectly reasonable, innocent question, and my mind's eye goes to a perfectly unreasonable (although now that I think about it, after that Mister Rogers book, the mustache thing kind of makes sense), perfectly un-innocent place.  And I would ugly cry.

Of course I didn't say, "They're going to burn it up into ashes," but that's what I thought, and since I'm not really all that comfortable with cremation (let's face it - all of the options for disposing of remains suck.  I don't want to be buried or cremated.  I think I want to be made into jewelry, to be honest...).  Instead I sobbed and tried to choke out something about, "The vet is going to keep her body someplace safe, but Kona doesn't need her body anymore..."

Before you have kids you have this image of how you're going to handle these sorts of things, these Major Life Conversations.  I imagined myself getting down at their eye level, earnestly taking them by the hands and saying something poetic, comforting, and beautiful.  Maybe prettily wiping away one errant tear...  That's not at all how this went.  By the end of the day I was laying in Claire's bed, sobbing, while she interrogated me about feline mortality.  I finally cried "uncle" - went into the bathroom to wash my face and blow my nose, then I got into Mary Grace's bed for a snuggle, only to have her to start in with the questions.  At that point, I kind of lost my cool.  I was tired and sad and I'd been answering questions ALL DAY, and I said, "That's it.  I quit.  I'm done for the night.  No more questions.  I need to go to my room," and I just sat down and cried.  By that point I had a splitting headache and more than my fair share of hormones, and I was finished.

Fortunately, today, the kids went to the neighbor's while I went to work.  It was just the break that all of us needed, and I've been much more accepting of the situation today.  She was a good cat.  She had a good life.  BJ and I talked about some of our funny memories of her - the time that she stuck her head down into my glass to drink my water and got stuck, or the way she used to climb the screens when she was a kitten and just hang from the top, looking out at the world.  That was what I needed, and now I can heal.

I'll tell you what, though...  I'm glad that my kids' first close-up experience with death was a cat, and not a person they loved and had a relationship with.  That would be brutal at this age.  I don't know how people handle preschoolers who've dealt with a profound loss, like MG's friend from school whose mom died this spring.  I hope I don't ever have to find out how that works.

If I had it to do over again, I'd probably do everything I could to distract the kids and give myself time to get over it before I talked to them about it, just so I'd be a little bit more calm and less soggy.  If you're dealing with the loss of a pet, my advice is to take your kids out of the house somewhere (but not to the bookstore) and get everyone's mind off of it.  It'll be a little easier tomorrow.  If you're dealing with a more difficult loss, I've got nothin'.  Sorry.

So, that's how yesterday went. 

I feel like I should end this on an up-beat.  While the kids were at the neighbor's today, my friend Chelsea was getting them into swimsuits to go play in the sprinkler.  She was putting her youngest kid's suit on, and MG said, "My father would KILL my mother if she bought me a bikini like that!"  Fortunately Chelsea thought it was funny.  Our next big talk is apparently going to have to be about tact.


Anonymous said...


Do you have an independent bookstore in your town where you can get some actual customer service? How about the public library? Book people must be asked for their advice on this particular subject all the time, so it shouldn't be necessary for you to feel like you have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Could you tell the kids the vet buried the kitty with other nice kitties/animals/friends so she'll have company/won't get lonely/have playmates, and just skip the part where her body was cremated first?

Have the girls discussed the death of other pets in the family -- your childhood pet, their cousin's pet, etc.? They may not realize they aren't the only ones to experience this.

Can you distract them with an activity so they'll give you a break and stop asking questions for a while?

I'm sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

(same anon as above)

Having the girls color pictures of kitty was brilliant.

But maybe they need more of a formal ritual, as well. (Maybe you and your husband do, too.) Can you hold something like a wake or memorial service? Plan it with the girls in advance and discuss what will happen, invite relatives/friends/neighbors, perhaps wear special clothing, participate in the wake/service, and then the ritual concludes. The ritual has a definite end. Then you can change your clothes and talk about what just happened. But maybe they need the jolt of a specific ritual to help them process the finality of death.

I'd suggest planting a tree in kitty's memory, but I don't know what you'd do if/when the tree dies. You can make a donation to an animal charity in kitty's name.

Can you talk to them about dead worms, birds, squirrels or anything else they come across in their daily life? Maybe it would be easier for them to comprehend death when it happens to someone who hasn't lived in their household their entire lives.

Have you ever taken them to a cemetery to visit the graves of relatives? Memorial Day has passed, but maybe you could go on July 4th and make it something of a family tradition.

Anonymous said...

Amy - Please don't beat yourself up that this is disproportionate response. When our 2 yr old kitty slipped out of the house one night we didn't discover it until the next morning she was missing. My husband took a whole day off from work to look for her and it devastated both of us. It was one of 2 times I've seen my husband cry in the 10 yrs we've been together. We spent weeks searching for her and still hurt when we see another cat that looks just like her.

I'll say it again - Pets. are. family. And it is normal to grieve for them. You've got enough to deal with, without heaping guilt about your emotions on top of it.

I'm really sorry that it was a rough day for you, but I'm very glad that yesterday was better. Love to the Pretty Babies family!

Cate said...

It's way better to get all weepy and really feel all of it, rather than bottle it up to be let out later at wierd possibly inappropriate intervals. It just sucks, and even though time makes loss more bearable, it doesn't really make it better, I don't think.

I think that showing your girls strong emotions and then showing them that you are OK, and can go on with your life, is totally healthy. I'm not sure shielding them from emotion you're going through should be that much of a concern. Other than it might be nice for you to have time to grieve by yourself without being watched/asked questions, etc. Hope that it's feeling less overwhelming today. :)

mimi said...

This won't help at all.. so you are warned.. however; my daughters pet hamster died (about 14 years ago as she is 23 now..or is she 24??? ) anyway, as it's gasping it's last little hamster breath she gently placed in my husbands' hands and pleaded with him to 'fix hammy'.. he lovingly placed the animal in a shoe box. He told her God made all things and sometimes he wants them to come home to heaven before we are done loving them. Anyhow...that was as simple as we could make it for her without delving into the whole religious philosophy & existentialism thing.

RobMonroe said...

It's been the weekend so I'm hoping that the taxation on you and BJ from the girls has eased by now. Been thinking about you all.

strwberrryjoy said...

I have had the same expeirence as you buying sympathy cards...tears dripping down on my shirt, etc at the store!

Did you check with your children's librarian for a better book?