As we sat in my kitchen on a balmy August evening, the woman across the table rattled off a list of questions. “Does he have a healthy appetite”? , she asked. “Very”, I replied, “but he won’t gain an ounce”
“Has he lost interest in activities he used to enjoy?” “Well”, I answered, “he’s much less active than he used to be, it seems all he wants to do is sleep”.
Heather assured me her questions would be over soon. She just needed to have a thorough understanding of her client. I nodded and wondered to myself whether hospice care for pets wasn’t going a bit overboard.
Heather was a last minute choice after learning our usual pet sitter was out of town.
Ironically, my father had begun hospice care two weeks prior. (We were on our way to see him). For our son Adam this meant one grandfather was preparing for the end of life just eighteen months after the other passed away. And a month after losing his Grandpa Ed, Adam had to say goodbye to another beloved pet.
This is glaringly different from my own childhood. My parents had us kids in their early twenties. By the time I was Adam’s age we were just settling in to our first house and acquiring our first pets. Both my grandmothers were 46 when I was born; exactly the age at which I gave birth to my son.
Becoming pregnant at 45 was a big surprise and an even bigger adjustment, but I embraced new motherhood wholeheartedly.Still, I worried about my son having parents of an “advanced age”.
I’ll never forget the day I picked Adam up from preschool and tears welled up as I buckled him into his car seat. It turns out someone had told him that once a person’s hair turns white they’re going to die soon. (I hadn’t covered my roots in a while!). “I don’t want you to die, Mommy”, my then three-year-old said.
I reassured my son that his Mommy was going to be around for a long, long time and he needn’t worry.
But on this day in August I was glad I’d stumbled across Heather…
It turned out Heather was a bit of an expert. She had been in human hospice long before she cared for pets. She knew a great deal about life transitions, the grieving process, and how children experience the loss of a loved one.
Heather told me that for a child (or many an adult) the loss of a pet can be more devastating than the passing of a relative. The pet may be more familiar to them because they interact every day. But be it human or animal, a child will deal with loss at whatever level they are ready for.
Heather explained why Adam had only cried for ten minutes when his beloved cat Houdini died and why he hadn’t cried at all when he learned that Grandpa Ed had gone to heaven. “A child will only connect with his feelings to the extent that they can handle them”, she said. Then he’ll step away and come back to it when he feels ready.
It doesn’t mean he’s done with it. Later he’ll have more questions. He might want to know more about what happens after death, where the spirit goes and how it gets there. Who will they be with, what is it like, and so on. But this is too much to handle all at once or if he can’t grasp the concepts. It’s a process he’ll keep returning to over time.
This helped me understand Adam’s “why is Mommy crying about nothing?” comment when I couldn’t stop bawling over Houdini (he’d been my baby for 13 years before I had my real one!).
It explained why visits to Grandpa John (now in hospice and too weak to move) were met with some ambivalence. Adam would greet his granddad and interact briefly, then go off and play. On one occasion, he wheeled John’s empty walker around the apartment and chanted over and over, “Be careful with me, Carolyn. I’m very delicate”.
It turns out there’s a positive side to all of this. Heather was kind enough to tell me how early experiences with death prepare us better for major transitions and losses in our adult lives. This made sense. It might even explain why I handled transitions poorly as a young adult. I’d had a great grandmother until age 13 and all four grandparents until my late twenties. In my twenties, I would get “stuck” when I suffered a loss and have a very hard time moving forward.
So in the end, it’s comforting to know that Adam is not being harmed by witnessing death at a tender age. It helps me to know that he won’t let it overwhelm him. That he has built-in strategies for coping.
Most of all, it helps me reconcile the fact that I won’t be around as long as most of his friends’ parents. Adam will have his cousins, his peers, hopefully even a wife and family of his own by that time. Best of all, he’ll have learned on his own terms how to deal with loss.