We found out Bailey was dying 4 days before it happened. I remember knowing in the pit of my stomach that it was coming. He hadn’t been himself for a month. There had been a trip to the Vet that week that had led to blood testing and an after hours phone call requesting we bring him in the next day for an ultrasound. I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I remember turning to John that night and saying, “I’m not prepared to lose my dog, don’t let that happen”. In the end it wasn’t John’s decision that Bailey had cancer, that it was aggressive and had spread so much. There was no ability to catch it in advance and even if it had been treatment would have given him maybe a few months and they wouldn’t have been good ones. Instead we made the choice to have a few good days, before things became ugly for Bailey.
Knowing we only had days with Bailey, we had to make the decision about how to tell Jack. I found myself asking everyone I knew, how to talk to your kid about the death of a pet. All of my friends answers were the same, to be honest. But I tend to believe there are different shades of honesty depending on your kids age.
For Jackson’s age (5) we felt honesty was keeping it brief without too many details. We were lucky that the veterinarian was able to give Bailey a Chinese herb called Yunnan Baiyao which slowed the bleeding of the tumor and allowed us to have 2-3 days where Bailey was feeling better and able to enjoy life. Over the course of the weekend we let Jack know that we were going to spend time with Bailey and be extra nice to him because he wasn’t feeling well. By the end of the weekend when Bailey started feeling really bad, we let Jack know that Bailey had cancer and that we didn’t think he was going to get any better and that John was going to take him to the Vet to help him die without pain. These were not easy words to say to a 5-year-old (or I imagine to anyone). And I was glad that we waited so that Jack didn’t have to be sad all weekend and could enjoy the time with Bailey.
I hadn’t heard about “the rainbow bridge” until my in-laws dog died and my mom told Jack that Buddy went over the rainbow bridge. It’s a lovely non-secular idea of dog heaven. We told Jack that Bailey had crossed “the rainbow bridge” and was now playing with Buddy and other dogs and that he wasn’t in pain anymore. While I’m not a huge fan of this concept (partially because it brings up its own set of questions like “why can’t we visit the rainbow bridge”) I did find it helpful to give Jack an idea of where Bailey.
When we told Jack about Bailey he didn’t believe us, he kept saying, “I didn’t expect this to happen”. Which broke my heart. Then there were tears and more tears when it became time for John to take Bailey. But about half an hour after John left Jack was ready for lunch and to go play. It’s not to say he wasn’t still sad but kids handle these things differently and may have no reaction at all. So be prepared for it to go either way and for their sadness to come or go quickly.
What was really important to me in the days after losing Bailey was that Jack know that it was OK to be sad. I wanted him to see me cry, I wanted him to know that it was OK to cry, I wanted him to grieve however he needed to. Kids grieve differently than we do and sometimes Jack’s grief came out in some hurtful and blunt ways. On the day Bailey died we got out of the house for a while and when we came home Jack said, “Bailey’s not here because he’s dead” and “I guess we don’t need the dog food because Bailey is dead”. These words were really hard for me to hear and it took me a few days to understand that this was just his way of understanding what had happened and his way of processing things. Once I accepted that, I wasn’t as upset about the comments.
In the days after Bailey died we talked a lot about the good times we had with him. We did this as a family and John and I did this on our own. It was wonderful and very healing to remember all the good times we had with Bailey. He wasn’t just a pet he was a part of our family and sharing those memories was a huge part of our mourning process. When Jack got sad or when I got upset, Jack would remind me that we had so many great memories and that Bailey was no longer in pain. These two things were so important to talk about, they keep Bailey’s memories alive and remind us that we made the right choice for a dog that was suffering.
Jack didn’t sleep well the night that Bailey died and for the next few nights after bedtime was tough. He woke up a few times in the middle of the night. We tried to avoid saying “put to sleep” as a few people had told me that the phrase could be scary to children or make them not want to go to sleep, fearing they might not wake up.
I spent a lot of time worrying about how Jack was going to handle Bailey dying that sometimes I would forget that I was mourning too. And other times I would forget that Jack was handling it better than me and that my crying scared him (his word, not mine). I had to remind myself that I was allowed to take care of myself and that I was allowed to cry. Sometimes in the days after I would have to walk away to catch my breath or find a few minutes to myself to mourn. When John picked up Bailey’s ashes from the Vet I took a moment to go upstairs and cry. When Jack gave me the card that my in-laws got us, I opted to read it later, so as not to get upset in front of him. While I didn’t hide my sadness or tears, I did try to control how much I sobbed because I didn’t want him to be scared by my sadness. It was a fine line to walk of letting him know it’s OK to be sad but also not upsetting him by him seeing me so upset.
This was never going to be an easy time for any of us. Losing Bailey was one of the hardest things I have gone through. I know some people think dogs are just pets but, for us he was family. I wanted to share how we talked to Jack about it because I was lucky to have so many friends who shared their stories with me. Those stories helped me heal, they helped me find the strength to have the tough talks and they let me know that they understood and that it was OK for me to mourn and feel sad.