Loving and Losing a Pet

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‘Bo- bo!’

That was probably the fourth word Ishaan invented, apart from our monosyllabic names, when he was nearing the age of one. So Bobo it was – our little black pup. That was twelve years ago. During these 12 years, Bobo left us and five others took the space created in our hearts.  Here we are now, a household of two preteen boys, five dogs and a set of dazed parents. The dogs are as much a part of the family as us, much to the chagrin of my own folks! Chewed up dining chairs, shredded news papers, constantly wagging tails and an occasional pug in the bottom shelf of an almirah left ajar by the boys is a commonplace sight. It is a happy place to come to. The moment anyone step in, they are greeted by yelps of joy and three little bundles that just cannot get enough of people followed by two fully-grown ones who just hurl themselves at the nearest human, plastering the unsuspecting person to the floor or the wall, as the case may be. Fur-filled clothes, paw-marks and sometimes, scraped arms, aren’t even noticed as they make us feel like a centre of their universe.

 Everyday, when the boys drag their bags in, on a hot summer afternoon, there is nothing better to cheer them up than a bunch of canine hugs. In the evenings, an exhausted man steps in after a day-long struggle at work but his troop cheers him up. On days when he returns in the dead of the night, the five pairs of eyes are fixed on the door, waiting.  When I wobble to the washroom at three in the morning, my own personal bouncer, Dobby springs up and dutifully follows me to the door only to doze off there. If this isn’t bliss, what is?

All that is fine up until the day one of them falls sick. The doc tut-tutted as he took a closer look at the ultrasound machine’s screen. For me it all seemed shades of black and grey but he pointed to the screen and shook his head. The grave look on his face completely defied the pair of trusting eyes that stared back at me from the table. My first reaction, ‘I am never keeping a dog again.’ My husband’s – an understanding nod. We both knew that wasn’t true. A four-legged fur ball will always be seen in our lives.

The journey back home was spent contemplating how to break it to the children. In fact how do you break it to anyone? ‘I am sorry but your pet is dying?’ or ‘We have to let her go?’- What are the right words? The right tone? How much information is too much? The answers are as difficult as the questions.

So we came back, made Jenny comfortable in her room. Her perked up ears and faintly wagging stub of a tail gave no signs of the time bomb ticking inside her. ‘The cancer has spread to all the vital organs and the tumour can burst anytime. Just make her comfortable.’ The doc’s words rang in my ears as the boys’ questions started pouring in.

I decided to play it straight. When the story of their birth never involved storks or any such nonsense, the story of losing their pet should be as true too, I figured. They patiently heard it all –her condition, the reports, the prognosis and the way forward. A moment’s silence later the younger one quietly concluded, ‘I read somewhere that Mother Teresa had once said that everyone deserves a beautiful death. I think we should just love Jenny a lot.’

Honestly, I was expecting tears, sobs and fits of anger towards the unknown. But here they were, two boys readier than me to lose a friend they had had for a good part of their lives. The difference, I reckon, lies in the fact that we never shirk away from discussing anything, no matter how uncertain or ominous it is. Death has been discussed extensively and both the boys have their own takes about the journey thereafter. When they lost their great grandpa, I sat them down and amidst tears and hugs gave them the fact – no turning into angel or going away somewhere, just plain facts.

When a loved pet dies, statements like, ‘God took him/her away,’ ‘He was put to sleep’ or ‘he is in heaven now’ confuse the children if given without any discussion. I feel, honest, age-appropriate discussion is the best way to prepare the little ones. Talking about death, illness and ultimately the helplessness of watching them fade, does more good than harm. As a parent, I am not supposed to have all the answers. It is okay to tell them what I think happens after death, which might be entirely different from what they feel. It is okay to let them know that I am grieving too and that it is perfectly acceptable for them to feel sad.

I know that their reaction does not mean they are fine with it. This morning, while playing with his Megatron action figure, Vivaan asked, ‘Mum, do you miss Richie?’  That was the name of my dog I lost roughly 15 years back.

‘Not anymore.’

‘So, it doesn’t hurt?’

‘Not for long.’

‘Hmm.’ The Megatron had attacked Bumblebee so the questions were lost in the battle for now.

 When the time comes, there are going to be tears and hugs. There are going to be lots of questions – maybe some very morbid ones involving the posibility of death of the people they love. The approach remains the same – honest, patient answers. Every child is different and needs to be helped differently. So what are some of the things I can do? I’ll try to list them, though these are more of pointers to self than a ready-reckoner for others! You will have to work out your own list.

  1. Stop brushing things under the carpet. If you pretend to not see/hear them, questions do not disappear. That bit is only true for fairies.
  2. Talk openly and honestly. Trust me you’d be surprised how much information they can soak in without being grossed out, scared or confused.
  3. ‘Let’s not get a pet, it eventually dies’- Really?  – That is the lamest reason not to get a pet. Allergies, lack of commitment, love for swanky, scratchless furniture are still better.
  4. Death is not a taboo. Come on! We all die eventually. So there is no point in hiding the whole idea, is there? The sooner they accept it, the better prepared they are.
  5. Do not ridicule/belittle their grief. Let them vent it out. ‘You are braver than that,’ ‘it was just a pet,’ ‘stop crying. It is enough,’ or worse, ‘I’ll get you a new one.’ – these statements are not going to make the pain go away. In fact they will just help in bottling it all up. Just because you were brave enough to tell them about it doesn’t mean they have to toughen up too. They are bound to be hurt and feel scared.
  6. At the end of it all nothing works more than a tight hug, a cuddle and a set of patient understanding ears. Throw in a hot chocolate with a cookie jar for added comfort.

So as I brace myself for the day she finally leaves us, I am not shutting her out of our lives in a lost bid to protect ourselves. She gets extra hugs from all of us. When no one is looking, the boys, one by one, sneak up to her and tell her that she is special with their arms around her. I do not stop them. She is here now. We will help her cross the bridge when we come to it. Till then, tail-wagging love it is for all of us!

Originally posted at : Loving and Losing a Pet

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