I was lucky. I grew up with a golden retriever named Alexandra (Alex or Bubba for short), who in many ways was the heartbeat of our family. We got her when I was 6 years old, so Alex and I grew up together. Next to my mom, I hold Alex responsible for teaching me about simple joys, unconditional love, and the power of listening. Sound crazy? Maybe. There’s truth in craziness too.
Alex passed away on her 13th birthday. I was 19, and had just come home after my first year in college. I bawled like a baby. (Shoot, I’m teary now jut thinking about it). I was lucky though; I’d had 13 incredible years with Alex, and was old enough to have a deeper understanding of the mysterious tapestry woven by life and death.
I’m telling you this because the family I currently work with just lost their cat Bailey, who was very sick and had to be put down. Mr. 7 was the last to find out, since he’d been at school all day. As soon as he got off the bus, his mom took him upstairs to break the news. I stayed downstairs and held Mr. 4, who was crying because HE wanted to tell his brother first. The little ones and I read a book about cats going to heaven, and by the time Mrs. Mom & Mr. 7 came downstairs we were remembering funny stories about Bailey.
“Remember how she always tricked me?” I said. “Whenever you guys took a nap, she’d stand at the top of the stairs and meow, and it sounded exactly like Mr. 4 saying ‘Maooo? Maoooo?’ She tricked me every time! I thought I’d turn the corner & see Mr. 4 standing at the top of the stairs, but no — it was Bailey!” *Kids laugh & wipe tears*
“Mo, remember when she stole your turkey sandwich?” Mr. 7 said as he sat down. “Tell that story again!”
And I did. I told lots of stories about Bailey that day, and so did the kids. We laughed thinking about her ‘elevator butt’, which would always rise when we pet her. We marveled at her super-kitty ability to jump from the kitchen table to the counter, and cracked up thinking about the time she got outside and we had to chase her around the yard. The stories soothed the pain of our loss, and helped the family connect in a meaningful way — to each other, and to Bailey.
When it was time for me to go, Mr. 7 had to run upstairs to change clothes for baseball. He’d just talked to his dad about Bailey, and was crying all over again. As he approached, head lowered and face flushed, I knelt down and put out my arms. Mr. 7 fell into me and sobbed for a minute or two. I didn’t say anything; I held him tight, saw Bailey and Alex in my mind, and shed a few tears myself. We let go and faintly smiled at each other before he went upstairs.
Sometimes, words heal. Sharing stories about the simple (and often hilarious) joys of Bailey did exactly that.
Sometimes words just get in the way, and sharing a quiet hug (and the quiet pain) of someone we love is the best gift anyone can give. We cannot shelter children from hurt, but we can stand with them.
Funnily enough, it’s Alex who gave me the best advice for dealing with the death of a pet:
Listen fully, love completely, and focus on every simple joy you are graced with.
What advice do you have for families who have lost a pet? Share it now, you never know what kind of positive impact you words might have on others!