More love and more loss

More love and more loss

Dec 01, 2006

When my 8-year-old daughter talks about the losses in her life, she consistently lists them in chronological order. And the first nine are all pets.

There was Thistle, the seal-point Himalayan my husband and I adopted before she was born. A couple of outdoor cats, who we inherited as part of the property when we bought a farmhouse with a barn. A half dozen chickens or so. And then my grandmother, who died this year at 90.

I've been surprised by her response to the experiences of loss in several ways. For example, she can be very matter-of-fact about death at some times and completely sentimental at others. She talks straightforwardly about the chickens getting picked off one-by-one, despite the fact that she hatched them all and remembers each one's name. (The fox was clearly outfoxing us.) She took the two survivors to join their neighbors in a safer home of her own accord and with their best interest in mind.

At the same time, she'll cry about missing Thistle, who died when she was about 4. And she mourns for that first cat with the same frequency and intensity that she talks about missing her great-grandmother.

Watching her process these experiences makes me think that losing pets is preparing her to lose people in her life. These losses forced us to talk about death. To acknowledge that people young and old die. That my husband or I could die. That she could die. Many of these, I have to admit, are conversations I might have tried to put off until she was older. But she seems to handle them fine. And I think she's better prepared for the realities of life and loss because of them.

Today we have two dogs. And her long-term attachment to and memories about even her earliest pet make me aware how important these four-legged companions are to her. I can't decide whether being an only child makes that connection any deeper. Certainly if she needs allies against the adults at our house, the dogs are her only option.

She started talking to me about what she could get them for Christmas more than a month ago. Last year she wrapped up their favorite treats and put them under the tree, only to find an hour later that Simpson had opened his present—and Dinah's—early. Boy was she steamed.

She hasn't forgotten. This year's gift may turn out to be the same. But she's doing a lot of plotting about safer areas for storage.

I like to think that living with pets gives her more loving relationships in her life. Of course, it also gives her more experience with loss of love. But I guess I think that will make her life richer overall.

Marnette Denell Falley, Editor