Encouraging Children to “Follow Their Grief” When A Pet Dies

(As many of you know, our golden retriever Angel passed away last December and, for me, one of the hardest parts was observing my kids’ grief and supporting them through it – an ongoing process, for sure. When Lisa reached out to me with a proposal to contribute a post on this very this topic, I said “yes please!”)

Guest post by Lisa Cohn

When our Golden Retriever, Lucy, died suddenly a year ago, I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep or eat. Every part of my daily routine felt empty without her—walking in my neighborhood, shopping in a dog-friendly store, or playing with my son in the park.

For my children, age 4, 14 and 24, Lucy’s passing was their first close experience with death. They looked to me to understand how to cope. My youngest, Michael, didn’t understand what death was.

Again and again, I encouraged them to follow their grief, to avoid pushing it away, and to see where their feelings of sadness and vulnerability took them. I tried to model this philosophy—and hope, in doing so, I didn’t overwhelm them with my own sadness. I cried every day, talked about Lucy to my friends, and engaged in conversations with people on the street about dogs they had lost.

Interestingly, my youngest, Michael, was most open to and accepting of my sadness. He listened to me, held my hand, and reminded me over and over that I had “three other babies,” (my three children). To him, Lucy was another one of my children.

Our family’s efforts to cope with grief over the loss of “my other child” focused on art, writing and communicating with others. First, we gathered photos of Lucy and posted them on Facebook and talked about our loss. It was comforting to hear from all our dog-loving friends.

Next, we created a few collages of Lucy, and hung them up in high-traffic areas of our house.

We also organized a “Remembering Lucy” party. We invited our friends and people who had cared for Lucy over the years. I thought it was especially important for Michael’s preschool friends to attend this event because they had all played every day with her on the playground (She happily went down the slide with them, which endeared her to them).

During the “Remembering Lucy” event, we shared stories about and photos of Lucy. I was touched by our friends’ and neighbors’ passion for dogs, and their comments about how much dogs give to them. Some of Michael’s friends spoke up, sharing stories about playing with her on the playground. And my 24-year-old son’s friends surprised me with their comments. One young man said he was always jealous of the fact that we had such a great dog. Another young man said that whenever he babysat Michael, Lucy guarded the two of them closely.

I believe our “Remembering Lucy” event deepened my kids’ understanding of the gifts our “best friends” give us. It certainly strengthened mine.

Following my grief also led me to write a children’s book, along with Michael, that stars Lucy. This helped us keep her alive in our hearts. Michael and I even started Skyping with classes globally, encouraging them to express their grief through writing and other art forms.

“Follow your grief,” is the message we send over and over. We followed ours, and it led us to Skype with children from all over the world—kids who touch us daily with their emails, letters and enthusiasm for pets.

Writing, organizing a Remembering Lucy party and Skyping with kids globally has impacted Michael the most. There’s only one way to deal with death, in his mind: Share your feelings publicly.

Just the other day, his friend’s dog died. “Let’s help them write a book about their dog,” he said. “That will make them feel better.”

 

Lisa Cohn, along with her son, Michael, are co-authors of the award-winning children’s book, “Bash and Lucy Fetch Confidence,” and were recently featured on the Today Show for Michael’s love of books and his role in writing the book. Visit them at www.BashAndLucy.com

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In Loving Memory: Angel McGarry

October 24, 2002 – December 1, 2013

Buried in the mud somewhere in either our front or back yard is an expensive universal TV remote. It’s not the first remote that was buried. The first one we found and was able to resuscitate, in addition to the two more recent attempts made at burying the Roku remote. But no such luck for the universal remote.

It’s surely not alone. The reality is that our 1.2 acre plot is fairly littered with items stolen and buried by Angel the Kleptomanic golden retriever. It if was left within reach, it was fair game. Hundreds of socks and dish towels have met with a muddy grave. Lego mini-figures. Too many stuffed animals to disclose. Sippy cups. Toys. Pens. Gloves. Hats. Blankies. Underwear (I’m still missing a sports bra from 7 years ago.) Even diapers (used.) Shoes, naturally, but just one at a time.

But we knew she had upped her game to consumer electronics when she, at first, buried a white cordless phone in the snow – and then the remotes started going missing. It’s a minor miracle she never took my iPhone. In her defense, she frequently dug things up and brought them back into the house, returning the muddy, sometime mouldy or frozen item to us with a hint of pride and anticipation of the reward of a treat.

We got Angel just before New Year’s Eve on 2002 – she was just 10 weeks old and as cute as a button. She was our first child. She provided us with two years of practice – remembering to feed and care for her, house train her, walk her, teach her basic commands – all great preparation for the future trials and joys of parenthood. In return, she adored us, nibbled us, was mischievous and adorable.

She didn’t start her thievery until child number one came along. Was she jealous or seeking attention? Probably. But this was the only form of punishment she exacted upon us: in all other respects she was entirely gentle and loving with our babies, demonstrated by what we fondly called the “fly by” – when, as mooching past a baby/toddler on the floor, in a chair or crawling, she’d suddenly whip out her long drooly tongue and take a long hearty lick of whichever part of the kid’s anatomy was within reach. And, as any dog-owning parent knows, during the high chair years, dogs prove their worth over and over again, happily licking up spills and catching projectile food items.

Angel was not your typical retriever. Yes, she would retrieve, but only sticks and only in water. Go figure. She loved sticks. She also loved to chew on rocks and pebbles. Maybe it was her way of flossing her teeth. Also, she had an uncanny ability to roll in something that had either died or defecated seconds before guests arrived. She was a very vocal dog: she’d express her indignation if a plate of leftovers was nearby and not offered to her. The only time I ever saw her bare her teeth would be when some randy dog tried to mount her. After all, no means no.

But mostly, I’ll remember her for being sweet and kind and gentle. As we all said our goodbyes to her that unexpected and fateful recent Sunday afternoon, her milky eyes took in our love for her and returned it. Eleven years of unconditional love is quite a thing to behold. And there’s so much we humans can learn from dogs, especially golden retrievers – enthusiasm, forgiveness, the art of laziness and more (all of which I blogged about last year, you can read it here.)

My grief aside, it’s been fascinating and heartbreaking observing my family deal with this. My husband mourns quite privately: he feels Angel’s absence most because, in reality, he actually spent more time with her over the last 11 years than with me, his wife. As for our kids, well this is their first tangible experience with death.

My 6 year-old daughter seemed to deal with it at first by just facing the facts. “Now we only have a cat,” and “We’ll never go to the doggy park again,” she exclaimed that evening. Two days later, upon observing Angel’s grave, she asked: “I wonder what she’s doing down there?” The next day she inquired as to when Angel was “coming out of her hole?” We did our best to explain again that death meant Angel’s body had stopped working and that when animals and people die, we usually bury their bodies in the ground. She thought about this, then countered with some muddled explanation about the messiah and Jesus’ birthday and everything and everyone rising up again. (Oy, can you tell she’s a tad confused on the religious front having a Jewish Mom and a Catholic Dad?!) I’m seriously concerned that she actually expects Angel to suddenly re-appear on Christmas Day.

For my 9 year-old son, it has been much more visceral and heart-wrenching. The evening that followed Angel’s death, he didn’t cry. He was very quiet, processing. That night was filled with bad dreams. He did not want to go to school the next day. Each day has been better though. He draws her a lot but doesn’t like to talk about her. One moment, he’s his happy, carefree self and then all of a sudden he remembers and is somber. He explained to me the other day, after a particularly tough evening when he and his sister were in bickering/whiny overdrive, that he was grumpy on the outside because he was sad on the inside, which made my heart hurt. But I do see progress in his journey of grief. This morning, he woke up with a big smile announcing he’d had the best dream ever. “Angel was young and fluffy and happy,” he explained!

Already people have asked us if we’ll get another dog. I guess that’s a natural question. Personally, I’m not ready to even go there yet. It’s not even been two weeks. Every day, when I come downstairs in the morning, I’m jolted by the realization she’s not here. Coming home is hard too, when she’s not there and so incredibly pleased to see us. I’m haunted by the absence of her: last night I was sure I heard the jingle of her collar. I feel the fictitious brush of her fur against my leg. I sense the gentle breeze and the glimpse of a shadow of a wagging tail. I’ve heard similar stories from other families who have lost their pets.

I’m not quite sure how to bring this post to its conclusion. The cat rejoices in her new domination of the homestead. There are more crumbs on the kitchen floor than before. There’s no barking when Fedex delivers. Angel’s life force is missing from this house and the absence is deep. But she had a great life. She had regular meals, treats, walks, belly rubs, ear scratches. And, most of all, she was loved.

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Becoming A Masterpiece

I just posted this on Medium, a new blogging platform. Mostly because it’s been screaming in my head for the last 24 hours until I was able to write it and the because the purpose is important. And also to try out Medium, because it’s new and hip.

This post – Unfinished Symphony – is dedicated to Fabian Stern and Ann Leopold Kaplan.

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One Moment at a Time

Life moves so fast. One day it’s Sunday, next it’s Friday. It’s January, then it’s June. Easter then Halloween. Births, birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, death, funerals. Whoosh, that’s it. Done and dusted.

This dizzy pace, the constant tension pushing us forward, making plans for next week, next month, next year. Deadlines, objectives, goals. Schedules, appointments, vacations. The intense desire to do things better, faster, differently, more.

It terrifies me. It’s a repetitive punch that sucks the oxygen from my lungs. Leaves me winded and gasping.

What about now?

Right now?

I love my life. I love this moment. I don’t want to whisk it away in a frenzied rush to get things done and onto the next item on the to-do list? I want to taste the here and now, enjoy it, sear it into my increasingly challenged memory. Venerate it. Put my two arms around it and give it a huge great bear hug. Whisper in its ear. Jump atop a table and dance with it. Pour it a cold beer and have a good chinwag.

Just in case.

Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Here and Now II, 2006, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches by Kayla Mohammadi, Brookline, MA

http://joanmitchellfoundation.org/artist-programs/artist-grants/painter-sculptors/2008/kayla-mohammadi

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