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The Pain of Losing a Pet

Photograph by Getty Images

This past Christmas, Santa Claus left our kids a puppy. A sweet little mutt of a puppy (We guessed boxer and pit bull, mainly) that one of Santa’s helpers (my sister-in-law) found starving and freezing behind the local Taco Bell. We named her Penny, and that sweet pup instantly became a member of our family. My husband and I treated her like a third child, and our kids would literally fight over who got to hold her, play with her, feed her, snuggle her. She was—without a doubt—the very best dog in the world, and our hearts expanded like a helium balloon with love for her.

And then, two weeks ago, there was a really awful accident, and our sweet girl died.

Oh, it was awful. My grief alone was hard to handle, and it took my husband, David, a few days to get his bearings straight, too. She was our baby. When the accident happened, David and I had planned to go to the kids’ mom’s house and tell them about it, to give them a week or so before they were due back at our house to heal. It didn’t work out that way, though, and before we knew it, it was time to pick them up and they were expecting their dog.

If I had a box of tissues, I would totally pass them to you now.

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How I worried about telling them. I was so terrified that this would ruin their childhood and their sweet, innocent hearts. Our kids are big lovers, and both of them wear their hearts on their sleeves. I knew this was going to crush them. Not only do most 4- and 6-year-olds get upset about puppies dying, but when it’s a puppy they have actually raised? A puppy that rode with us everywhere in the car, played catcher for our baseball games and would, every morning, whether they were at home with us or not, run to their bedroom to wake them up? Ugh. My chest hurt just thinking about it.

When I picked the kids up for our weekend, the first thing they said—as usual—was, “Where’s Penny? Did she miss us? What did she do while we were gone? Can she sleep with us tonight?” I tried to buy myself some time by taking the kids to the park until David came home from work but eventually, we headed home and I knew I had to do it.

“Sam, will you watch us ride our bikes?” Chloe asked me as we pulled in.

“Sure, baby. But hey, before we play, I need to talk to you guys for a minute,” I said. We all piled out of the car and I took a seat in the yard, both of the kids standing in front of me. I knew I couldn’t lollygag with this, that they needed to just hear it straight out, so I said, “Babies, there was an accident and Penny died.”

Oh my word, the tears.

Chloe, our 6-year-old, immediately started sobbing. “She DIED!?” She cried for so long and so hard, I thought she was going to be sick. Trey, our 4-year-old, stared at me for a minute and, laughing, said “No she’s not, Sammy! She’s inside! I’ll go get her!” He started to run for the house, but Chloe’s anguish and screams brought him back.

Leave it to a kid to nail the definition of loss.

“Penny, oh Penny, PENNY!” was all I could hear from Chloe. That little girl wailed her dog’s name, sobbing the entire time. “We didn’t even have her for long! I didn’t even get to see her! Oh If only I could have one more lick!”

Oh God, it was heartbreaking. I expected the same from Trey, but our sweet boy sat down and stared at his big sister. “She’s just gone,” he whispered. “My dog, Penny? She’s just gone. She died. She’s never coming back.”

See why you needed those tissues?

I told them everything I was told to say by my friends and family. I told them about Rainbow Bridge. I told them they had a puppy angel now. I told them that Jesus was scratching her belly. And one day, when we went to heaven, she would be waiting for us with her tail wagging.

It was just awful. Nothing seemed to help either of them until Trey looked up at the sky and yelled, “There she is! There's Penny!” I looked up and, sure enough, there was a cloud that was a spectacular replica of our little Penny’s silhouette. It had her ears and her nose.

The three of us stared for a long time and Chloe whispered, “I hear her barking. I really do.”

RELATED: Teaching Kids to Say Goodbye to a Pet

It took a long time to calm Chloe down and, at her request, I took her to Penny’s grave. That was a terrible idea. I had to carry her away after she started hyperventilating. That night, she made her own little memorial for Penny and tacked it above her bed. “It just feels so different,” she said. “My life feels so weird without her here.”

Leave it to a kid to nail the definition of loss. I told her it would feel like that for a while, but it would get better in time. I promised her that her heart would heal and soon, she might want another puppy to add to our family.

But I still can’t get her wails out of my ears or her pleas in the front yard for, “Just one more lick.” Ugh.

How did you handle telling your children that their pet died? Do you have any tips on working through their grief with them? I’d love to hear it.

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