How to tell your kids when their pet dies (grab a tissue)

Don’t get a pet. Do you know what they do? They make you fall madly in love with them and then they leave you. Now I know.

It all started twenty years ago when I was young and stupid and had this random idea to swing on over to the animal shelter and pick up a kitten. You know, like I was running to the grocery store to buy ketchup, only it wasn’t a condiment you stick in the fridge. It was a pet. A real live pet.

kitten

I named him 9-0, after 90210. That’s how long ago it was.

I distinctly remember getting this little guy home and watching him climb in and out of a McDonalds bag on the floor and thinking, “Awwwwww.” And then two seconds later thinking, “WTF did I do? I am now in charge of a life.” Me. All alone. Panic set in.

But fast forward nineteen years—a move to Boston, a move to Chicago, a new husband, two kids—and my little fur baby was still with me.

As much as I had taken care of him all these years, he had taken care of me.

He greeted me every time I walked in the door, he followed me everywhere, he slept with me every night, he cuddled all the time, and if I wasn’t paying attention to him he’d knead my back with his paws or meow at my feet or lie across my keyboard pressing down the keys messing up whatever I was typing. In fact, here’s a little keyboard memorial to him: kuukkuuuuuuuuuuuuyyyuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

But a year or so ago he started having seizures. I thought that was the end but I was wrong. It was just the beginning of the end. There was still plenty of time to be worried, and sad, and cuddle, and celebrate life, and prepare the kids for the worst. So I started to say things once in a while to let them know what was going on. 

ME: He’s getting older, guys.

ME: We’re lucky we’ve had him this long.

ME: It will be very very sad when it happens.

ME: He’s had a very long very happy life, and you guys have given him so much love.

Zoey was worried about her little buddy. There were a couple of times over the past year that she would randomly burst into tears because she was thinking about him dying. And then one day she said this.

ZOEY: Mom, I don’t ever want a dog.

ME: You don’t?! I’m surprised. Why not?

ZOEY: Because that means 9-0 died.

Oy. Hearing your kiddo say something like this is a punch to the gut. But he kept on going and going… until the past few weeks. 

I noticed his food bowl was barely touched. And he was sleeping almost all day. And the only time he would leave the bed was to come down during dinnertime to be with the family. Seriously. He’d sit there meowing and meowing and I thought he wanted food so I put cheese on the floor but he didn’t eat it so one day I picked him up and put him on a chair and he was happy. So we started doing this every night. 

cat

See him there? Look at me, I’m a human too!!

But he wasn’t eating. Not at the table. Not from his food bowl. Not on the floor. So on Monday I took him to the vet pretty much knowing what he was going to say.

ME: How do we know when it’s time? I don’t want him to suffer.

And the vet looked at me…

DR. MIKE: I think this week.

I felt my heart hurt. Like literally hurt. But it wasn’t hurting for me. It was hurting for my fur baby. And for my other babies. So my next question wasn’t one I’d planned on asking.

ME: Do you have any advice about telling the kids?

And he did. He said to be very honest with them and that it’s good for them to grieve right away. That you don’t want them to bottle up these feelings because then they resurface months later. And then I asked him another question I hadn’t planned on asking.

ME: I think I know the right answer, but do people bring their kids when they put their pet down?

He told me that some people do but that he wouldn’t recommend it. He explained how kids can’t always tell when the pet has passed away and that he’s seen kids start pushing it to see if it’s still alive and that it’s just not a great experience. I kind of thought that was the right answer for us but I needed to check. I needed to have an answer in case my kids asked if they could be there. And I’m sure all kids are different. Some can maybe handle these moments, but I was pretty sure mine would not be able to. 

So when I got home, I told my hubby who was surprised/devastated/not convinced it was time yet. But I assured him it was. And we looked at our calendar to figure out when it would be a good time to tell the kids.

ME: Nope, Holden has soccer tryouts tonight. And Zoey has ice skating tomorrow night. Not then, I don’t want to upset her right before her slumber party.

It felt sooooo wrong. Trying to fit our kitty’s death into our hectic schedule. But I think it was kind of our way of putting it off. We agreed to tell them next Monday on Memorial Day and do it on Tuesday when they went back to school.

But you know what they say? God laughs when you make a plan.

On Monday night, 9-0 was suffering. I could see it. I won’t go into the details because that’s not the way I want to remember him, but a little after midnight, we decided the nice thing to do would be to let him go the next day. Which meant telling the kids before school so they could say goodbye. It wasn’t ideal for them. It wasn’t ideal for us. But it was ideal for our pet. Well, as ideal as dying can be.

ME: Guys, we love him sooooo much, we don’t want him to suffer. That’s why we should do it. 

Needless to say, their reaction wasn’t good. In fact it was horrible. Heart-wrenching. But I just kept telling myself that the doctor said that’s the way you want it to happen, so it doesn’t resurface later. We let them cry. We let them be sad. We didn’t try to make them feel better or tell them it would be okay or that time would heal. We said things like…

ME: It just stinks.

HUBBY: It’s okay to be really sad.

ME: He had such a wonderful long life filled with love, and in some ways that makes it harder to say goodbye.

After I dropped the kids off at school a little late, I sent their teachers an email to let them know what was going on just in case. And at 10:30 my husband and I went to the vet and I cradled my kitty in my arms while he looked into my eyes and passed away. The doctor was right. He didn’t look dead. He just kept looking at me with his sweet eyes. But he was gone. 

Both teachers sent emails back saying the kids seemed fine at school—which was what I hoped would happen because they’d be distracted—but as soon as they stepped in the car, they both burst into tears and asked if it was done.

ME: Yes it is…

And I made sure to add

ME: … I held him in my arms and it was very peaceful when he died.

I wanted them to know it was a nice way to die. Holden asked where he is, and I told them that 9-0 was cremated with other animals so he’s not alone, and we said that heaven for him is probably Daddy’s armpit because that was his favorite place, and even though we were sad, that made us laugh a little. Then we spent the evening fluctuating between being normal and being sad, especially when we looked at our bed and he wasn’t there. 

And the next day I went through alllllll of my pictures of him and made a sweet memorial video that I’ll show the kids one day. But not today.

But looking at all of the pictures made me realize something.

Even though our pets almost never live as long as we do, even though they make us fall madly in love with them and then they leave us, the amount of love we get while our pets are here makes it all worth it.

So I take back what I said. Get a pet. Get two pets. Get a bunch. One day they will make you very VERY sad, but you will never ever regret it. 

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There are 24 comments for this article
  1. Eliana Garry at 9:19 am

    Our dog passed in October. We were planning on letting the kids come with us since they asked, but he seized and passed in the middle of our kitchen floor. We cleaned him up (everything releases when they pass) and called the kids in. We all just snuggled together and cried. Since the vet ended up not being needed, rather than taking him there to be picked up for cremation, we drove him to the crematorium ourselves. It gave the kids one more chance to say goodbye. Now, seven months later, we still have sad days, but I am so glad that he left knowing how loved he was.

  2. Leigh at 9:30 am

    Grief is loves souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we get to wave in the air that says to the world: “Look! Love was once mine. I loved well. Here is the proof that I paid the price.” I’m very sorry for your loss.

  3. C at 9:34 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss. We just put our kitty down a few weeks ago. We knew it was coming but we weren’t prepared at all. Your 9-0 was truly loved and loved you back.

  4. Ashley Bell at 9:40 am

    Sorry for the loss of your sweet furry baby. We have a 16 year old cat with bad arthritis and are struggling with knowing when to let him go. Right now he is still happy and eating and super cuddly, but I know our time is limited with him. I also had him before husband and 2 kids, and can’t imagine life without him ;( Thanks for talking about kids not going as I’ve struggled with wondering if they should go or not too!

  5. Linda at 9:48 am

    My aunt (who runs a cat rescue in GA) have us a kitten 2 weeks ago that a local shelter had asked her to take off their hands. He was really tiny but he was a gorgeous chocolate point Siamese. My daughter (4yo) claimed him as hers. After a week (last Friday) he hadn’t been eating much and was really lethargic. Took him to the vet and it turns out he was only 5 weeks old (max-so at most he was only 3.5 weeks old when he was dumped at the shelter) and only weighed 1 lb and was dehydrated. They wanted to keep him to see if they could get some weight on him. He died Saturday night just bc he was too little too be away from momma kitty and hadn’t been given the proper care when he was taken away. My baby girl took it pretty well and has told me multiple times this week that he doesn’t like being dead. My 12 yo wasn’t happy that we were given a baby who wasn’t old enough, but he understands and cuddles his Pretty kitty closer at night (she’s a great cat and she’s definitely his). ❤️ To your family. I know all too well the hurt you’re feeling right now.

  6. Kristin at 9:48 am

    Thank you for posting this. We are also going through end of life with our cat, that I too got just after college when it was just me, and now have the husband and two kids. I’m not looking forward to what’s next, as we simply don’t quite know yet when, but I appreciate your story and hearing how you handled it with the kids.

  7. Denise Stone at 10:10 am

    I saw this post last night, after coming home from the vet putting my nearly 16 year old Border Collie to sleep. It was a tough day for me but I know it was for the best. In human years, he was 110! Today seems sureal. Back to normal, but missing the extra chores that accompanied caring for a geriatric 65# dog. Thank you for writing exactly what I could not bear to say.

  8. Ingrid at 10:11 am

    OMG…I’m sitting in the Walmart automotive center waiting on an oil change, sobbing. A very nice lady just brought me some Kleenex. Condolences to you & your beautiful family. RIP, 9-0💜

  9. Callen Henretty at 10:57 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Ours experience was very similar with our beloved 16 year old lab mix when my kids were 3 & 5. We tried to ‘schedule’ it into our crazy lives, but she was suffering and had to do it sooner. Our amazing vet came to our home (while the kids were at school) and it was surprisingly peaceful. We only told the kids that morning that she was very old and sick and we were taking her to the vet so they should say goodbye in case he couldn’t help her get better. I’m not sure if that was right or not, but my 5 year old had a VERY difficult time with it. Honestly up until we got another dog recently (over a year later). I don’t think my 3 year old really understood and would ask for months when Shadow was coming back. Pets are family and grieving them is natural and painful – just like any loss.

  10. Crieda at 11:06 am

    I am so sorry. I have had many pets in my life. My favorite dog growing up my mom had put down while I was at school and told me when I got home. It was so hard. Thank you for allowing them to say goodbye. I have had to make the decision to put down 1 pet that was mine. It was the hardest thing to do. We now have one dog and 2 cats and I cannot even imagine what that day will look like. I know I want my children to know and be able to say goodbye. And maybe, hopefully, if they are a lot older they can be there too. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Helen at 11:26 am

    I’m so very sorry to hear about the passing of your dear cat 9-0. He was such a beautiful and sweet cat.
    I hope your memories of him will be a comfort to you and your family.

    I’ve had sever cats that passed away. My first cat Luckie lived to be 17. Ari died tragically at age 5.
    And then I had two cats Oscar (14) and Arianna (11) who died from Cancer within 6 months of each other. And then there was Shelby, he was my special once in a lifetime cat. He was a tabby and white cat with the most gorgeous green eyes. I loved him so much. He was the kind of cat who would cuddle anytime I wanted him to. He had a heart condition and he died suddenly at 10 years old, in my arms. He was the first cat that I actually held after he passed away. I wanted to comfort him and let him know that he wasn’t alone. No matter how many times it happens, it’s never easy when they leave us. Just take all the time you need to grieve.

    I have one cat now, Monte. He was Shelby’s older brother and best friend. Monte is 15 and he’s doing great. We cherish every day that we have Monte.

  12. Carrie at 11:30 am

    We had our beloved 12 year old dog put to sleep about a month ago. We had it done at our house by a traveling vet and while my original plan was to have the kids inside while I was outside alone with the vet and our dog, the kids insisted they be there when it actually happened (they are 10, 9, and 6). I’m ultimately so glad they were. We all were with our dog when she passed, we all petted her, kissed her, and said goodbye and I felt like they got the closure they needed in knowing exactly what happened – that she was gone and she wasn’t coming back, but that it was peaceful and she didn’t feel any more pain.

  13. Constance LAURIDSEN at 12:01 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss of such a beloved family member. Reading the replies to your story helped me to decide that I may just get another bulldog. Hugs …. Connie

  14. Mary at 12:07 pm

    So very very sorry for your family’s loss. But I have to tell you I think you handled the situation perfectly, with love and honesty. You asked the vet such thoughtful questions. I don’t know if I would have thought to ask them, thinking I could just come up with something to tell the kids. My family has lost several pets and it’s certainly never easy but I’m so glad we had all of the wonderful years with them. Again, so sorry …

  15. Nicole Gardner at 12:08 pm

    i am so, so, sorry for your loss. on May 11th, i went through something very similar, knowing the end was nearing but i took my baby in for a bloodwork check and he didn’t get to come home with me. I too held him in my arms. I was so glad it was just me and him. I have older (15 and 12) kids but would not have wanted them there for that. thank you for sharing this story with us.

  16. Jean Bailey at 12:12 pm

    I feel your pain. Three years ago my dog Maggie Mae, who I adopted as an adult dog, started having issues, gaining weight no matter what i did, and just seemed off. The vet finally decided she had congestive heart failure and sent us to a specialist. I made an appointment, but we couldn’t get in for almost 2 weeks. I had a trip planned to see family out of state, so my adult daughter came to stay with Maggie Mae. While i was in San Diego, my daughter had to take Maggie to the emergency vet, who called me. I had to ask my daughter to stay with my Mags while the doctor relieved her suffering. Thankfully my son in law was able to get there to be there for my daughter. Meanwhile, I’m at my great nephew’s baseball game bawling my eyes out. My family was great, my daughter was great, I still feel guilty about Maggie suffering and even though I have 2 dogs now, I miss my Maggie Mae. Her collar and leash are on the coat tree and moved with me in January- still on the coat tree. I’m crying while I write this and I was only blessed with Maggie Mae for 3 years; I’ll miss her forever.
    Twenty years is a blessing to have anyone, especially a pet member of your family. May your memories bring you and your family comfort and joy and sustain you while you grieve. Xoxo

    • Kia Brand at 1:12 pm

      I’m so sorry. I had to put one of our dogs down last year and I wasn’t sure what to tell my daughter. I took our dog, which like you I’d gotten way before kids & husband, to the vet knowing it was her time but wanted help deciding from the vet. I planned on taking her home and them going back to the vet with her the next day. Unfortunately that’s not how it happened, when I got to the vet my dog was having issues breathing and the vet recommend I put her down then. My daughter knew the dog was sick and I was taking her to the vet but not that she was going to be put down. My daughter was out with my sister that day and I told her when she got home. She did the same, burst into tears, was normal, then tears.

      Our other dog is nearing the end now and I’ve talked to my daughter, the same as you, trying to prepare her. I thought about taking her with me when it’s time so she can see our dog will go peacefully. I’ve also had the dog since before kids and marriage. I’ve decided though to go alone since I know I’m going to be a mess and don’t want to have to focus on what is happening with my daughter. It sounds selfish but I don’t think my daughter is ready to be there. I’m so not looking forward to the day though.

  17. Lisa at 3:48 pm

    The picture of him sitting at the table with your family…well, I just lost it. This is one of the most touching tributes to an animal I have ever read. But he deserved nothing less. Twenty years is very old for a cat, but he obviously had a lot of personality and a lot of love for you and your family and he needed all those years to give it to you. The fact that you could get a party hat on him! OMG! I don’t think any of my cats would wear a party hat!

    When my son was three, we had an old black kitty named Emily. She was a stray and we had no idea exactly how old she was, but I think she was probably around 15. Anyway, she had been going downhill for a while, and we were in denial, and we also wanted her to pass at home. But it just got to the point that she was suffering too much so we took her to the emergency vet. I will never forget the night we had to take her way and explain it to my son. We had him say goodbye to her and i wasn’t sure if it truly sunk in since he was so little.

    But it obviously had an impact: We had this big black stuffed cat that my husband and I bought and we had it years before we had my son. Months later my son asked me if the stuffed cat had a name. I said, ‘Well, no sweetie, Dad and I never thought to name it.’ And my son said; ‘Well it’s a her and her name is Emily.’

    I had to go into the other room and I lost it.

    Many condolences to you and your family.

  18. Saige at 4:29 pm

    Oh Dear Sweet Karen and Family – may God grant you comfort in your grief and joy in your memories. Nothing hurts like loosing someone you love, NOTHING. My daughter was nearly eighteen when we had to have our Girl put down. Our Girl, a Border Collie, had been with us for over 16 and a half years. My daughter couldn’t remember a life without her. We (my daughter and I) went to the vet together, on Presidents Day because that’s when Our Girl’s heart gave out. There is no way I would have not taken my daughter with me (your children are much younger, I would’ve struggled with decision as well with kids at that age). Together we held her and talked to her and comforted her (she was frightened, you could see it in her eyes – she was suffering from heart failure). Together we told her how much she meant to us and how well she had cared for us. We laughed at silly memories, even with silent tears streaming down our faces. Once she was gone we gave in to the heartache and sobbed – for hours, and off and on for days and weeks. That was 6 years ago. We still miss her and have been unable to introduce another Love into our lives. Believe it or not, you can love and grieve like this for a Toad too. Buntah was with us for nearly seven years and loosing her hurt no less. (Buntah had a blog of her own, “The Chronicles of Buntah”) In fact, I was out of town when she passed and I still feel guilt that I wasn’t here for her in her time of need. My brave daughter had to handle that one by herself. Cherish all those precious memories of 9-0, they will bring you much joy once the sting of the loss abates some.

  19. Doris at 7:45 pm

    I’m so sorry! I think they know that we love them.
    When our cat (of 19 years) died we lovingly buried him then came inside and were trying to plan the rest of our day when I heard him meowing. For a split second I through that I’d just dreamed the awful thing that had just happened before realizing it must be a cat outside the window, but checked and didn’t find one. Then, someone said, “It came through the Alexa unit! I saw the blue light on it!” When asking Alexa to meow, it sounded entirely different than what we heard. I smiled and decided that it must be our much loved kitty telling us good-bye and that he is OK. At least that’s how it is in my world. . . 🙂

  20. Stephanie at 11:28 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss. 9-0 was such a lucky kitty. The love your family had for him was so evident.

    We had to put my 15 year old cat Chloe down in November, and I still break down in tears from time to time. Making the decision was so hard, but I know it was the right decision. We learned she had cancer everywhere, and she was swelling up all over and having trouble walking and jumping. I’m so thankful for the thousands of photos I took of her.

    We’re torn about getting another cat, but you’re right, the amount of love makes it worth it. Thank you for sharing. Chloe and 9-0 are both snuggling in their favorite spots now.

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