Yesterday, the day finally came, though it wasn’t one of our pets that passed; it was a family member’s pet that our son knew and loved. RIP Moon.
Originally published on Dads Round Table, February 2014
I dodged a bullet this week. I thought for sure that I would have to have “the talk” with my three year old. No. Not sex. I’m not really scared of that conversation…yet. I mean the other “the talk,” the ugly stepsister: death.
I was almost certain our youngest cat, Fred, was going to die. Though only five years old, he had stopped eating, was throwing up regularly, and had gone into hiding—and that can be a terribly slippery slope for a feline. My wife and I were very upset; we love our cats like furry kids, and have had them since before our boys arrived. Worse, we have already gone through the untimely death of our first cat, Hank, who passed suddenly and inexplicably when he was only two years old.
My wife and I spent a good part of the first few days in tears, hand-feeding Fred and watching him grow thinner. We walked a double-edged sword of whether or not to take him in to the vet, knowing his nervous personality and how heavily stress affects him—often making him sick in the past. A vet visit might help us determine what was wrong with him, but it might also come at the cost of making him even sicker.
Through it all, our three year old stayed close to us, always ready with a hug or a touch on the arm when we were upset, accepting the explanation that we were sad that Fred was sick. He would often want to come down with us to the basement when we checked on Fred, helping to reassure and pet him.
Despite, and in part because of, how empathetic and adult our son was about the situation, I was terrified that I might soon have to sit down with him and explain why “Freddy Peebers” (the cat’s actual name is Fred, but he has about 5 different “pet names”) had to go away and why he would never be coming back. My mind raced through different scenarios and ways that I could break the news to him, none of which stood out as a reasonable way to explain things without crushing him at the same time. Any explanation I gave would also leave the door wide open for other logical questions like: “is mommy/daddy/grandma/grandpa going to die?” or worse (though he may still be too young to make the connection): “am I going to die?”
Thankfully, I’ve been able to put that decision off for a while—and I hope it’s a long while. Fred has responded well, and is slowly turning back into his old self. Not one to mentally leave something alone, though, I couldn’t help but keep pondering—not so much about how I would tell my son about death when the time came, but why it will matter so much how we deal with our son when something like this inevitably does come to pass. I mean, I’ve known plenty of farm kids throughout my life who would think nothing of a cat dying—it’s just another animal, and one that’s considered largely disposable and replaceable in a farm setting; to my son, however, it would be losing a friend that has been with him from the beginning—even if that friend was too terrified of him to come within ten feet for the first couple of years.
The difference between how my son views our cats and how a farm kid might view the barn cat is not about inherent value; it is about investment.
I think a lot of people lose sight of that idea of investment when it comes to relationships. It seems to me that they have nothing (or little) to do with the inherent value of either party; instead, they depend on the attachment and effort that each party puts into them. This, I think, is why little kids can become attached to things like pet rocks (wow, that really dates me, doesn’t it?). Sure, the rocks have no objective value, but because the kids invest their time and emotions in them, the relationship has value to them. “Dog people” may never understand why “cat people” like cats—and they don’t have to. Why isn’t important. What is important is that they love cats, and how they love cats.
That same logic will ultimately guide me when it comes time to sit down with my son, hold him close to me, and see him through whatever rough patch he may be going through—death, breakup, even the loss of a favourite toy, or a failure to achieve something he was striving for. I may not understand why he feels the way he does, but if I accept that he does feel that way, and try to understand how it is affecting him, I’m not sure the words are ultimately going to matter.