I am a dog lover coming from a family of dog lovers! During my childhood, I was the sibling to five dogs where I had simple responsibilities to love and play with them. As an adult, I have been the dog parent to two dogs, one who is in heaven and one who begs for treats daily.
I lost Alexis, my first dog child, in 2012. My daughter was too young at the time to ask any questions. Now, eight years later, after the death of my dog niece, Shiloh, my daughter asked lots of questions about her death. Simple answers did not suffice her sweet heart and her smart brain. As I watched the emotions of sadness, empathy and relief in her eyes, I knew it was time to have the difficult conversation about the loss of a pet. I focused on the age of the pet, how a pet dies, and the importance of grieving.
First, we talked about the age of the pet.
I explained that every animal has an aging chart based on human years. One dog year is equivalent to seven human years. We used her math skills to calculate the equivalent human age of Shiloh. Whoa, she was 91 years old. That’s old! We discussed the frailty of a human at that age and how that translates to the frailty of a dog. It gave her perspective and understanding of Shiloh’s quality of life.
Next, we talked about what happened to the pet in age-appropriate terms.
Alexis died of natural causes. I shared the story of Alexis’ death with my daughter for the first time. I watched Alexis struggle for days with sluggishness and incompetence. It was heartbreaking. Then, one evening, I held Alexis while she took her last breath in our backyard. I proceeded to explain that some pets are put ‘to sleep’ because of their health challenges, diseases, severe injuries, cancer, and various other reasons. For dogs, it is a peaceful process of a few shots until they take their last breath. My daughter expressed sadness for both situations and then thanked me for the explanation.
Last, we talked about grief and the healing process.
After holding Alexis during her last breath, I cried for days. Alexis was my ‘dog child’. She greeted me with maximum enthusiasm. She listened unconditionally. She never showed disappointment when I failed. She was my companion. It took over a year before my heart, soul, and mind was ready to get another dog. My emotions were real and natural after losing a pet, losing part of our family. There is no shame in grief and no timeline for healing.
After our discussion, my daughter looked at me and said, “Mommy, thank you for telling me the truth so my heart can understand.”
I felt relief that I did the right thing by talking about the hard stuff. It is always a parenting gamble on what to say about death while keeping it age appropriate. We ended the discussion united in the belief that all dogs really do go to heaven!
In memory of my dog niece, Shiloh, you are loved forever!