It is with a heavy heart that I write today, as we had to put down our housemate’s nearly 17-year-old beloved pooch, Gopher, or as my 2-year-old daughter affectionately called him, “Dofers”. I have known Gopher since he was 5 years old, when I first joined Pawdemonium Flyball Club with my then 10-month-old border collie, Claire. He was a spry and fairly fast runner then. Believed to be a golden retriever and border collie mix, we often called him the “fake Duck Toller”, as he looked very much like them, and loved water just as much.
Over the years, I have grown to know and love Gopher, and for the past year or so I’ve had the privilege of getting to live with him. My daughter has also been growing up with him, alongside our three dogs and our housemates’ other border collie.
Shelby loves dogs. She knows each dog’s name, including the dogs on our flyball team as well as the dogs of our various other friends. She enjoys giving them commands (under close supervision, of course) and tossing them cookies or toys or a tennis ball when they obey – which is most of the time.
While Shelby has not inquired as to Gopher’s whereabouts yet, I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for that moment. One part of me wishes that we had allowed her to attend the euthanasia, to say her goodbyes and see him go. But as peaceful and loving of an experience as that was, surrounded by friends, I recognize that at just 2 years, she is too young for this. Yet, I realize that not addressing the question at all could be doing her an enormous disservice as well.
When we were at the veterinarian, the doctor recommended that we try to help Shelby understand by relating to something with which she is familiar, such as a bug which has died, but since we have a turtle to whom we feed bugs, I decided quickly that although this kind of reference would be ideal for her level of understanding, it would not be an ideal explanation based on her experiences. My mother, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, suggested telling her that “he is up in heaven (or in the sky) now”.
According to The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, “bereavement in children too often has been trivialized or given inadequate attention”. On their very informative website, they describe the different ways in which children grieve, based on their ages and corresponding maturity levels. They recommend, at any age, being completely honest and telling the child that the pet has died and will not return. They also recommend that adults allow themselves to show their feelings of sadness to children in natural and normal ways, to help them better understand the process of bereavement.
We have decided to tell Shelby that Gopher has “died and gone to heaven.” I’m sure that, like my niece who baked imaginary cookies and then tossed them skyward for my father after he passed away, Shelby will eventually understand what really happened. My goal is to prevent this moment from being traumatic in any way. My niece still mourns the loss of her beloved grandfather, but she does not seem angry at anyone about it, and while she wept at the loss of her hamster last year (her first pet) she was not visibly traumatized by this loss. Clearly, her lessons have been positive.
In the end, we will do what we can to make this transition easy on Shelby, while helping her to understand what she can, based on her maturity level. Ultimately, our goal is help her to have as many positive learning experiences as possible. I suppose that, morbid as it may be, this may be another advantage to pet ownership for families. And, sadness notwithstanding, I would not give this up for the world.