Children and pets -- they go together like family. How many boys have played hockey or catch with their dogs for hours in their backyard? How many girls have dressed up their cats and pushed them around in a stroller?
A family pet is a big decision. Many families get a pet after months or weeks of children begging. They promise to do all pet related chores, even promising to keep their rooms tidy. (That alone is almost worth the 15+ year commitment!)
As parents we weigh the pros and cons. The added responsibility, the financial commitment, the possible yard or furniture damage lead the list of cons. The pros are the life lessons, learning responsibility by having to look after the pet, learning compassion for another living thing. The family walks with the dog would be good for everyone. Plus, how cute are family photos of children and pets! And the memories! A child with their arm lazily hooked over a dog's shoulder as they stare off in wonder at the world, a cat curled at the foot of a child's bed like a fierce protector.
I should tell you, I live in a fur zoo. We have four cats and two dogs. Well, we had two dogs. And yes, I said four cats.
Let's start at the beginning. In the beginning it was my husband and I. Then we adopted Kiara, our first family dog. We had both grown up with dogs and I was smitten with her the moment I saw her at a rescue. A year after we adopted her, our first son, T, arrived. Kiara adopted him with an open heart. He was as much her baby as he was mine, and she became a loving protector of and playmate to him, and his little brother, Z, for her whole life.
In 2003, when T was 4, he started campaign puppy. My husband and I discussed it, weighing the aforementioned pros and cons, and for Christmas T got a phone call from Santa to say he had found the perfect puppy for our family.
It took all of five minutes for Kiara to look at me like I was crazy and for me to realize that I had been conned by a 4-year-old. Puppies are a lot of work. But we made it through Kagan's puppy years, and eventually he turned into a nice dog. A nice dog that occasionally liked to find his way out of our yard to play with the neighbourhood children.
In 2010, after multiple surgeries to have tumours removed, we acknowledged our time with Kiara was over. She was in pain and her quality of life was impacted. So, as a family we made a very difficult decision to say goodbye to her. We shared a lovely spring day with her at the river, we spoiled her with treats and cuddles. Then we all sat with her and said goodbye, telling her how much we loved her and would miss her.
After a while Kagan's loneliness became too much to bear so we got a cat, Brider. Then to keep him company we adopted a pair of cat brothers, Dobbie and Ranger. A year later a tiny black kitten, Snider, came to join our fur zoo. If you are keeping track, that is one cremated dog, one living dog and four cats.
Then I was duped again. My youngest son, Z mounted his own campaign, the "I-don't-remember-puppy-Kagan" campaign. So we went to see a litter of puppies. Just to see them. Within moments of getting there I was smitten and wanted a puppy. After all, Z promised to do all the puppy chores and he was almost 12, surely he wasn't going to leave me hanging! Except Piper instantly decided she was my dog. Hard to fault him for not wanting to be responsible for her when she wanted nothing to do with him! Piper is a special dog, she has a medical condition that has her on a strict diet and has her life expectancy limited to between three and five years. That was devastating news for us, but we accept it and intend to love her for however many years we have.
When we made the decision to say goodbye to Kiara, it was a family decision. We sat down with the boys and discussed compassion and love and quality of life. When Piper was diagnosed, they learned that life doesn't always give us what we want, or expect but we make the best of it.
Yesterday we again faced the most difficult decision a family can make regarding fur-members of the family. Kagan's kidneys were failing and he was not doing well. My husband and I did not want the boys to come home one day and find him deceased. To face that while my husband and I were at work seemed unfair. We had tried medication and diet changes and neither were working anymore. He was bloated, miserable and having reoccurring bladder issues. It was time.
So, we spent a special day all about him. We cuddled and enjoyed his favourite place, the local river, with him. And again, we were there in his final moments, telling him how much we loved him, how special he was and how much we would miss him. Then with red-rimmed and puffy eyes, his leash and collar clutched in T's hands, a box of tissues tucked under my arm, we made our way back home to our strangely much quieter home. His squeaky, once irritating bark is already missed.
As with Kiara's passing, I am reflecting on all the life lessons having pets has taught my sons. There are the obvious things like consideration, compassion, responsibility. All things that will serve them well in life.
Those are the obvious life lessons. The ones I would encourage you to consider are the life lessons about love and loss. My boys are nearly 16 and 14. They have both parents, all their aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. T has been touched by the loss of a teammate and a teammate's father but their only experience with love and death, with grief and sadness is the loss of Kiara and now Kagan. They are profound losses to our family. In both cases, I know in my heart it was the right decision for our dog, but that doesn't help when I am watching my sons shoulders shake with sobbing grief over the loss of a loved and cherished family member.
I am grateful that I am able to be there for them through this, because when it is one of my parents, I may not be able to be such a guiding support through their grief. I am hoping that these two losses prepare the boys enough that they know there is no shame in crying, in openly grieving. Nor is there shame in laughing at the goofy, silly and funny memories. That grief comes in waves. That part of loving is sometimes letting go but that you get up, dust yourself off and continue on with your life. And most importantly, you love again.
Those are the life lessons I am most grateful to Kiara and Kagan for teaching my sons. Those are the lessons I was referring to when I gave each dog a final kiss and whispered thank you to them. Thank you for helping me shape these young men. For patiently waiting while they struggled with a big bucket of food, for not holding a grudge when you had a truck driven into you, abruptly waking you from your nap. Thank you for being there to comfort them from a thunderstorm, for being the ones they could talk to when they were mad, sad, or hurt and not ready to talk to Mom or Dad. Thank you for teaching them to put someone else's needs ahead of their own. Thank you for being the reason they turned off the game console to take you for a walk. Thank you for helping to teach them how to love and mostly, thank you for teaching them how to grieve.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: