When I started my day last Wednesday, I had not even an ounce of premonition about how it would end. The morning routine had its usual hectic pace, with my husband dashing around the kitchen with an edge to his stress because he had to fit in taking our 13-year-old dog, Ellie, to the vet.
When we had gotten home the day before, we knew something was very wrong. She had labored breathing, intermittent spitting up, and no interest in food. When we were going upstairs for the night, she stood at her water bowl, frozen and appearing disoriented.
At 7:30 am Wednesday morning, I took her on our usual walk before taking the kids to school and going to work. She did not eat breakfast, but I left her water down in the basement where she stays while we are gone, the same as every morning.
Her appointment was at 11:00 am. At 11:15, my husband texted me: “We need to make a very tough decision.”
Hospitalization with IV fluids and antibiotics. Emergency surgery. Neither would necessarily fix her. She had gas distension throughout her gut, aspiration pneumonia with a blocked left lung, and a mega-esophagus (we are still not sure what that is, but it was probably why she was vomiting, which caused the aspiration).
Despite my background in palliative care when I counseled numerous families around making compassionate decisions for their loved ones, and that sometimes chasing a cure results in more suffering, the terribleness of this decision for our Ellie paralyzed me.
My husband and I met on a bench outside my office during my lunch break. We cried and knew what we had to do. We discussed the logistics of clearing my afternoon work schedule and meeting at home to then go get the kids, tell them what is happening, and all go to the vet as a family.
I have spent years talking to kids about death as part of my career. I have supported hundreds of parents in how to talk to their kids about death. I have filmed a video resource for parents about grief in children. My career has been leading up to this moment to gracefully and skillfully handle this difficult conversation with my own children about the death of our dog.
At 2:00 pm, our daughters greeted us with excitement since we were picking them up early AND together. Their innocent enthusiasm weakened my confidence to do what we had to do. We found a private place to sit, and tried to find the words.
I think it went something like this, “You know how Ellie seemed sick last night? Well, she is so sick that the doctors can’t fix her. Her body can’t keep working, so the doctor is going to . . . “
I hadn’t thought this through – I didn’t mean to lead up to the word “kill,” but I couldn’t even say the words that Ellie was going to die. One of the first pieces of advice I have as the professional is to use the words “die” and “death” because euphemisms with kids can be confusing and scary. So my husband jumped in and said what is on top of the “do not say this” list: “she’s going to go to sleep.” They got the point even without the perfect words, without the grace and skill I should have had.
Tears filled their eyes as we cried freely. We asked if they wanted to say goodbye. Our 6-year-old said no at the same moment our 8-year-old said yes. Later, our 6-year-old repeatedly explained to us that she meant she didn’t want Ellie to die, not that she didn’t want to go see her. We knew this even without her explaining.
My husband had asked if this would be too scary for our 3-year-old. I stuck with what I knew and had advised countless times – young kids can handle it, and it can make it harder if they are not a part of saying goodbye. We picked him up, gave him a similar explanation, and all went to the vet together. He repeated the same questions on the (thankfully) short drive: “Why is Ellie sick? When is she going to come home?”
At 3:00 pm, just seven hours after I had unceremoniously left Ellie in our basement to go to work, I was now waiting in the “comfort room” to hug her for the last time and hold her while she died. The staff walked her in, and the kids gave her kisses and hugs, and then left to go to the play area in the waiting room, with a very prepared staff member to stay with them so we could have time with our Ellie.
Although we had been crying around the kids, I didn’t realize what I had been holding back until they left the room. I sobbed and felt the grief through my whole body. My husband and I reminisced about how she had been part of our relationship since the beginning and it felt like saying goodbye to a piece of us.
The vet came in and gave us the best gift for our grief, “Ellie is really critical and has progressed much more quickly than I ever expected. She wouldn’t have made it through the night. You are absolutely doing the best thing for her.”
Our Ellie was always an anxious dog, complete with years of a Prozac prescription and sleepless thunderstorm nights. She would have been terrified to be sleeping in a hospital and dying alone. As painful as it was, we knew we were doing right by her to both be wrapping our arms around her and whispering our love to her as the vet gently put the medicine through the syringe. It happened so fast, and she was just gone.
My husband and I felt all the devastation of grief: disbelief, emptiness, sadness, and exhaustion. We went through the motions of the rest of the afternoon and evening to take care of our family –grocery store, dinner, and bedtime. At every turn, a presence (food bowl, pillow, chew toy) reminded us of her absence. Despite the rowdiness of three young children, the house felt quiet. The void was inescapable.
This is where my background in grief with children especially paid off. I knew my 3-year-old would not understand the permanence of death. I knew it wasn’t my fault for not explaining well enough when he kept asking questions like, “When Ellie’s done dying, will she come back to eat her food?” We just kept saying, “she’s not coming home.”
All three kids treated the afternoon as a special mid-week surprise of being home unexpectedly. They put on their bathing suits, we turned on the sprinkler, and they even said they would forego their usual pre-dinner TV shows, playing in the beautiful weather until dinner. Every once in awhile, they would say “I’m so sad about Ellie” or “I miss Ellie,” but grief sure looks different in kids than adults.
I realized that their capacity to waltz between normalcy and grief helped my own healing process. Them being children kept me in the moment, present and grateful for the beauty this sad day offered. I may have curled up in a motionless ball of sadness had they not been there for me to take care of, and to remind me of life.
An important part of working with all people managing grief is normalizing that grief can take many different forms. There is not a “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. My kids didn’t have to “act” sad to be sad. In fact, I think they were taking care of us on that day. They saw a raw sadness in their parents they had never witnessed, and they were okay, which helped us be okay.
Ellie was our family before we had a family. As a 9-week-old puppy, Ellie became our first “baby” long before marriage. Even a few weeks ago, people assumed she was still a puppy because of her exuberant spirit.
We are going to plant a tree in our backyard to grow and bloom above Ellie’s ashes, with her ceramic paw print nearby. She changed WITH us and our growing family over the years just as much as she CHANGED us and our family. So her tree can keep looking over us as we keep growing and changing, her death continuing to give us life.