As I sit down and attempt to write, my household is in a suspended consuming moment of grief. If you aren’t an animal or even dog person, this maybe isn’t your read. If you are, then you mostly like can understand, though I hope you can’t relate.
Last week, one morning started off like any other. My wife went down to feed our four dogs with our twin four year old sons trailing behind to help. But unlike previous mornings, it ended in a bloody, somber, tear-filled vet office visit with my cat of almost 18 years. You see, our biggest dog thought our old cat was too close to his food. He didn’t mean to hurt her, but he did, and fatally. In front of my sons, in front of my wife, and by the time I got downstairs, there was still too much too see.
I am not afraid of our dog. He is six years old and came into our family no differently than my other three dogs and cat did. He is massive, however, and this isn’t his first incident. How awesome this dog has been in mostly every other scenario isn’t up for debate. But we know in our depths, even before what will be his second behavioral visit, that he has to be put down. There are too many unknowns, and they leave us too vulnerable and liable. If there was another way, trust me, we would be pursuing it with all our energy. But there isn’t. The pattern for him isn’t a positive one, and no matter how much we love him and no matter how important he is to our family and my wife, sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest.
So that’s where we are today, two days out from what will likely be his last vet visit. The grief is dense and heavy and happening frequently. At first I didn’t know if I should shield my sons from how gutted we are, but I know now it’s okay if they see it. They feel it in their own ways, and their expression of it is heartbreaking as well.
Life is so messy. As parents, we don’t always have it together. Why should my sons not know that? I don’t have all the answers, and I won’t ever tell them I do. We are walking through so many conversations right now about what happened and what they saw, but also what will happen and how that will change our family. It’s so hard. It’s harder for my wife who had our dog for a few years all by herself. If you had a dog or cat (or anything for a pet, really) before you were married or had children, you know exactly what the place that animal holds in your heart. You are never ready to let it go, but especially when they only thing wrong with it is inside a mind you can’t read or see.
My sons will randomly start to cry or ask the most out-of-the-blue questions. Likewise, so do we. In those instances, we all draw close. My sons come to our sides and tell us it’s okay and more importantly, okay to cry — something I wish all little kids, and especially little boys — know is okay. We, in turn, listen to their sobbing and explain truthfully that we can’t fix this. Sometimes there are no answers, and this broken suspension we are in is may be more painful than actually already having to say goodbye.
There are plenty of instances in life when we need to be stronger than we feel or stalwart in tough times, but in front of my sons — in this situation — they deserve to see our emotion and process it however they can. Death is a new concept to them — they just had a boy they considered their friend pass away a few weeks ago. We have been having some hard, deep conversations about it (and they have asked some interesting and hard questions), but I know it’s all a lot to work through.
Likewise, it’s a lot to process for us too, no matter the loss. What I am learning through this is that it’s okay for your kids to see you be a little vulnerable, a little sad about things, because there are plenty of things that are worthy of such emotions. I am not trying to raise Ironman. I am trying to raise sons who have empathy and who have emotions and the ability to share them. I think all children should see their parents exhibit different, appropriate emotions, even the hard ones. The best kind of adults will be the children we allowed to feel and those that knew their parents had and felt emotions too.
So we are all feeling pretty deeply today. It’s overwhelmingly sad, but there is no shame in our family for the emotions we have exhibited. There is no way to keep our children out of the mess, because the messiest parts of life have the biggest lessons. One big life lesson today is making clear that our emotions — more importantly, that my sons’ emotions — matter and are validated. Few things we can teach them will ever be more important than that.