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When you don't get to say goodbye

Last year we almost lost one of our cats. She was very sick. We didn't know what was wrong with her and neither did the vet. After a week at the pet hospital, numerous tests, different medications, IVs, syringe feeding, and so on, she wasn't getting better. She didn't seem to be suffering horribly, but she wasn't getting better. So rather than euthanize her, we brought her home to die. Our cats are outdoor cats and we live in the country. We thought she would be happier and more comfortable in her usual surroundings for her last days or hours, rather than cooped up in the pet hospital. When we came home, we kept her inside for a while, tried to feed her a bit and give her some medication. She was begging to go out, so we let her out. A day later, she hadn't come home. We figured she had gone to the woods to die. Then she reappeared, still not looking great, and we observed her as she caught a frog and ate the whole thing. And then she got better. Within 24 hours, she was almost back to her usual self. We now know that she probably self-medicated by eating that frog and was able to regain her health.

Before she reappeared and during the whole time she was at the cat hospital, I began to prepare for losing her. This cat is a pain in the ass. She really is, but we love her anyways. I was distraught and inconsolable. I was also trying to figure out how we would explain it to our son (then 3 years old), especially if we did make the decision to euthanize. It turns out that there are lots of great resources on the Internet to help choose the right words to explain euthanizing to a child if you decide to go that route. But she got better, so we didn't need to explain.

Since then, the topic of death has come up with our son. He knows that when we lived at our previous house, we had a cat called Kiki. He knows that Kiki died. He wasn't born yet, but he has seen the pictures of us at that house with Kiki and asked about her. He hasn't asked a lot of questions, but he understands that she used to be alive and she isn't now. I don't think he understands the whole continuum of life concept though - birth, life, death, etc. I'll give you this conversation as evidence:

  • Him: Mommy, when we made the stairs outside...

  • Me: We didn't make those stairs, the people who lived here before us made them.

  • Him:Oh, when you lived at Kiki's house?

  • Me:Yes, when we lived at Kiki's house.

  • Him:Did I live here with the other people when you lived at Kiki's house?

  • Me: No, you weren't born yet.

  • Him: Oh, was I in your tummy?

  • Me: No, you weren't even in my tummy yet.

  • Him: Was I dead?

  • Me: No, you just didn't exist yet.

  • Him: Maybe I lived here with the other people.

That conversation was a few days ago. Not long before our other cat (not the one that was sick last year), disappeared. Our cats usually spend the night outside hunting and exploring. In the morning, they are always either waiting outside the door (meowing to be let in) or come running up the path when we go out to grab the newspaper. But a few days ago, she didn't come back in the morning and didn't come back all day. We went to bed, wondering if she was okay. The next morning (yesterday), she still wasn't back. I went off to work and soon after, my husband called to say she had come home. She didn't look great, but she was there. We figured she had been out on an adventure and just needed to rest up. Later in the day, she went out again (we can't keep her inside - she doesn't use the litter box, she uses peoples' beds if she gets confined inside). This morning, she didn't come back. And we haven't seen her all day or evening. Given the poor state she was in when they last saw her (I never did get to see her when she came back because I was at work), I'm pretty sure she isn't coming home again. I'm hoping she will, but at the same time, I'm starting the grieving process.

So back to our son. While I put our daughter to bed tonight (who is too young to understand what is going on), my mom went outside with my son and the tin of cat treats that we usually shake to call her and get her to come back in. They walked up and down the road a bit shaking the tin. And she didn't come. So I think our little guy is starting to realize that she might not be coming back. If she doesn't reappear soon, we'll have to have that conversation about the death of a pet. So I'm back on-line, reading those articles again (see below), trying to find the right way to explain this to a child who doesn't fully grasp the concept of death, who has never lost anyone close to him, and who at the moment doesn't have any reason to think that he would ever lose anyone that was close to him.

Or maybe it isn't entirely true to say that he hasn't lost anyone who was close to him. He had a Spanish teacher at school that he adored. He was constantly talking about him and would come home singing songs in Spanish and speaking in Spanish. He also had this same teacher as a lunchtime supervisor and in after school care sometimes when we couldn't pick him up at the end of the regular school day. During those times, he enjoyed playing games with him and laughing with him and just really loved this man. And then one day, he wasn't there anymore. We have learned that there was a disagreement between him and the director of the school and that he left as a result. But there were no goodbyes for the students. Just a sudden replacement with another teacher who didn't inspire nearly as much interest or passion from our son (or the other students from what I have heard). Although he couldn't really explain it, I could tell from his behaviour that he was grieving the loss of this teacher who had meant so much to him. Although the teacher had told me what a special student our son was and how nice it was to have someone in class that was so interested and passionate about Spanish, I don't know if our son realized how special he was to this teacher. All he knew was that he suddenly wasn't there anymore. We didn't get, in my mind, a satisfactory explanation for him leaving and were very upset that the school didn't arrange for him to say goodbye to the students before he left. We don't know whose decision that was, but I don't think it was a good one. And because I didn't have a good explanation for him leaving without saying goodbye, I struggled in explaining it properly to our little boy.

And now the cat is gone. She didn't say goodbye. And we didn't know she was leaving for good, so we didn't say goodbye. But we'll have to find a way to say goodbye to her, to honour the special place that she had in our lives for so long. We'll miss her.

For reference, some of the resources I'm reading to prepare to talk to our son:
« Feminist motherhood | Main | 10 Things All New Parents Should Know »

Reader Comments (3)

Just wanted to say that I've bookmarked your blog and plan to read it regularly from now on--every time I've stumbled onto it (there are very few blogs I have time to read regularly), I've been just incredibly impressed by your insight and perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts...

August 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarla

Thanks Carla! That's very nice of you to say.

August 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I was passing this along to another blogger today and thought I should update to say that the cat did come back (5 days later) and my son still asks when his Spanish teacher is coming back from vacation (more than 6 months after his departure).

November 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

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