On Monday we had to make the difficult and painful decision to have our cat put to sleep. We had been wrestling with the very idea of having to make a decision like this for two weeks, yet when the time came it was clear to us that we weren't making an actual decision; instead, we were simply doing what had to be done. In the end, all the agonizing about how and when and what to tell the kids led to a very brief and almost anticlimactic moment in the kitchen. Both kids simply said "oh" and fled immediately to the family room--L. to take apart a flashlight, and T. to attempt to unscrew the battery compartment on our Leap Frog talking globe. Perhaps they both needed to escape the awkwardness of the moment--their parents' palpable grief, and busy themselves with the comfort of something simple and predictable, like the dismantling of toys.
Later, while I was folding still-warm laundry in our bedroom (and remembering, too, how much Izzy used to love to sleep on piles of warm shirts and towels), I realized that to a certain extent Scott and I had projected our perceptions of what our cat's loss meant to us onto the kids. Of course they loved her, but not in the way we did. We'd known our cat for almost 13 years. She had gone through five different moves with us, and lived with us in three different states. She was our constant companion in the evenings, curling up next to us or on our laps while we graded papers, prepared for classes, or just watched TV. We had a special history, the three of us, one that extended back into the way our lives were before we had children, back to the days before Scott and I were even married. Now the spot next to us on the sofa seems so empty, and we think we catch sight of Izzy everywhere--on the counter, in the bathroom, or there, on our bed.
As a parent it's hard to step back sometimes and remember that your kids are not extensions of yourself, but in fact separate and individual little beings, with their own perspectives and their own interpretations of what life throws their way. We may want them to act certain ways, and they may not; we may think we know and understand the inner workings of their minds, and then they'll surprise us. I think ultimately there is only so much planning and prepping you can do for your kids to pave the way for the loss of a pet; ultimately, as a wise reader pointed out in a comment to my post last week, you have to follow your gut. In the end, as with many, many parenting dilemmas to come, we grown-ups probably do way more worrying and browbeating than we need to. Our kids, in the end, are often more resilient than we ourselves are; the innocence of childhood is often the ultimate panacea for most sorrows.