Thursday, March 28, 2013

Saying goodbye to a family pet

How do you help little kids understand and say goodbye to a pet they've had their whole life?
Otis kissing Sammy
A few weeks ago we had to make the tough decision to put down our 12 year old dog Otis.  We had him since he was just a few months old, and he has been through the best and worst of times with us. He did some HORRIBLE destruction as a puppy, including eating the entire left side of our leather couch, pulling up berber carpet, ripping up layers of linoleum, chewing every single chair and table leg in the house, and even chewing not one but two holes completely through the drywall and pulling out insulation.  Yet, we stuck it out with him because having a dog is a commitment and Fleeners are NOT quitters!  He turned out to be the BEST dog ever and we will miss him!

Baby Otis taking a bath

Otis - 2001

Otis sitting proudly by the layers of linoleum he ripped up!

I'm guessing there are other people out there with little kids and old pets who might benefit from hearing what we did, so I thought I'd share how it all went in our house.  I know every kid and pet and family is different, so take what you think works for you and leave what doesn't.  I think it is easiest for me to explain how we handled it by simply writing out how our conversations went.  So keep in mind my explanations are being told as I told them to my 3 and 5 year old!

I really started preparing them earlier than I realized.  My 5 year old loves to look at old photo albums, and whenever we came across a photo of an old dog that wasn't around anymore, I'd tell him that this dog had died.  The conversation would turn into something like, "Doggies don't live as long as people, but we really like to love them and play with them and give them a good life while we have them.  It's sad when they die, and we always remember how much fun we have with them, but then we adopt another doggie and give another doggie a great life!"

We did talk a little about doggie heaven.  "We don't know for sure if there is a doggie heaven, but if there is I bet Otis will go there and play with Roxy and Mudpie! (my family's old dogs)  But Jesus loves people and people love doggies, so I bet there will be some doggies in people heaven too." ;-)

I knew from the beginning that we didn't want to just tell our kids that Otis "went off to live at a farm."  We wanted them to understand (as much as they could at that age) what really happens.

Explaining Death...

"Do you know what it means when someone dies?  It's when their body stops working. kindof like when you take the batteries out of a stops doing the things it did before.  Sometimes you can put a new battery in and it will work again, kindof like when Grampa got his new stem cells from great aunt Nancy (my Dad recently underwent a stem cell transplant for his Lymphoma), and it made his body work again.  But sometimes the toy still doesn't work because it's just too broken.  There are parts of your body that make it work like your heart and your brain.  When things like that stop working and can't be fixed, then the body stops working and dies." 

Of course being Christians we have had plenty of other conversations about heaven and what happens to our body and then our spirit when we die.  But death alone can be a post in itself so we'll just move on to the dog related stuff...

Suffering and the meaning of "Humane..."

"Do you know what suffering means?  Suffering is like when you get a really bad owie and you can't do anything to make it stop hurting.   If you just keep hurting and are sad all the time, that is called suffering and your quality of life is low. They say your 'quality of life' is very low because you can't enjoy stuff anymore.  When a doggie is suffering, he isn't really having a fun and happy life anymore.  Do you notice that Otis is having a really hard time walking around and sometimes his legs fall out from under him?  Have you noticed that he whines a lot? That's because he is hurting.  He is not eating his food anymore and can't run around and play with you or Amos (our other dog) like he used to.  That means his quality of life is low, he isn't having a fun and happy life anymore and he is suffering."

"Do you know what 'humane' means?  We are being 'humane' when we help an old doggie stop his suffering or help him to die nicely so he doesn't have to suffer too much.  We love our doggies and we want to keep them with us forever, but when they are suffering, even though it is really hard and sad for us, it is the right thing to do for him because we help him not to hurt anymore."

Explaining what actually happens...

"The vet has a special shot that they use to help a doggie die without hurting.  First they will give him a shot that helps him to fall asleep.  After he is sleeping, they will give him another shot that makes his body turn off and then he dies.  So for him, he just feels like he is going to take a nice nap but then he doesn't wake up.  It's not like the shots you get at the doctor....those shots help keep you healthy.  This shot is a special shot that only vets give to doggies." 

Preparing for the inevitable....

"Pretty soon we will have to let the vet give Otis this shot so he doesn't suffer anymore." I told him that just Mommy and Daddy would be there for that part because we wanted his last memories of Otis to be the happy parts, "But I promise I will let you know before it happens so you can give him lots of extra hugs and kisses and say goodby to him, okay?"  Several times in the week or two leading up to "the day,"  when I noticed something I'd point it out to make sure Sammy saw that Otis was starting to suffer more.  "Do you see how Otis is crossing his back legs and tripping himself? That means we will probably have to have the vet give him that special shot soon. Not today, but soon."

Sammy didn't really say a lot but really seemed to listen and get it.  He'd keep saying "I'm gonna really miss Otis." He'd seem a little sad, but then get a smile as he suggested that we could then get another doggie.  He'd go back and fourth between suggesting a whole new kind of dog, to another dog that's the same color as Otis that we could also name Otis. ;-)

"Otis Day..."

So when the day came and we just knew it was time to let Otis go peacefully and with some dignity left, I called a mobile vet and made an appointment for that same night (after the boys went to bed) in our home.  I let the boys know that today was going to be the day that Otis gets his special shot.  

"Tonight is the night when Otis is going to get his shot so this will be our last day with him.  I think we should call today 'Otis Day' and do lots of special things just for Otis."

To which they replied, "YEAH!!!"

We stayed home from our church moms' group that we usually go to on Wednesdays, and the boys and I made homemade peanut butter dog treats for Otis.  He hadn't eaten anything in days, even threw up his lunchmeat-wrapped meds.  But he was able to enjoy some peanut butter treats.  We had a couple jars of peanut butter that we finished up so each of the boys gave him a peanut butter jar to lick out.  This has always been one of Otis's favorite things to do, and we were always amazed that he could get every speck out from the bottom of a jar! They had to hold it for him as he wasn't able to hold it himself like he used to.  We watched some old home movies of Otis and looked at his doggie baby book.  I think it was a good exercise for the boys to see what a good, fun, long life Otis had, and also to see and compare how much a young, healthy dog enjoys life as confirmation that Otis just wasn't in that place anymore.
Peanut butter jars!

Making dog treats! We used cookie cutters shaped like a bone, a squirrel, and hearts.
A tray of treats ready to bake!
Otis getting some lovin' from Toby. Awe, this pic chokes me up!

I was really surprised at my ability to not lose it during all of these conversations.  There was one time during that afternoon when I cried a little in front of the boys and used that as another "teachable moment."  I asked Sammy for a hug and said, "You will probably see Mommy and even Daddy cry a little because we are going to miss Otis and that makes us sad.  It's okay if you get sad and cry too.  When we see each other cry we can help by giving each other hugs, okay?"
Last hugs before bed....and last picture with Otis.  :-(
When bedtime was approaching was the toughest to fight back tears in front of the boys.  "Okay, it's time to get ready for bed.  The vet is going to come after you go to bed, so it's time to give Otis lots of big hugs and kisses and say goodbye because he won't be here anymore in the morning."  That's about all I could muster at that point!!

The boys were still awake but out of sight in their rooms when the vet came.  It worked out well for us so that both my husband and I could be with Otis, and the kids could be with us right up until the end but not necessarily witnessing everything.  Otis went quickly and peacefully while being constantly petted on his own rug in his own house where felt most comfortable.


When I was tucking Sammy in for bed that night he said that tomorrow he wanted to make a book all about Otis to remember him with.  I thought that was pretty cool of him to come up with that all on his own.  He wanted me to help him draw pictures of Otis doing fun things like playing ball, swimming and riding on our pontoon.  The next day we did just that.  Part of me hoped he'd forget he wanted to do it as I knew it would be hard for me too, but I am so glad he thought of it and that I was able to help him say goodbye and remember the good times through his project!

Making pages for the Otis Book. I drew Otis and Sammy added his surroundings.

I have always had a ring binder to keep my receipts and records of every one of Otis' vet visits and kennel visits.  It was kindof cool to toss out all the vet receipts and fill the same book with Sammy's happy memories of Otis.

The "Otis Book"
Our vet sent us a couple nice cards afterwards that we added to his book too.

Our other dog Amos is only a year younger than Otis but he is just as hyper as he was when we adopted him at 1 year old.  I told the boys, "Amos is probably going to be sad and miss Otis too so we should be sure to give him lots of extra hugs and attention."

So, the first thing Sammy did when he woke up the next morning was draw a picture for Amos and tape it to the wall above his water bowl "to cheer him up."  Awe...
Picture for Amos
All in all, from the way Sammy reacted and came up with ideas to make the Otis book and cheer up Amos, I think he "got it" in the end.  Toby, at age 3, could only get so much.  For a couple days he'd wake up and ask us where Otis was.  I'd tell him "he died, honey.  The vet took him away."  And he'd say "ooooh. I miss Otis." The sweetest thing was over hearing Sammy explaining to Toby that Otis was probably in doggie heaven playing with Roxy.  A few days later Toby would randomly say, "Otis is in doggie-eaven!"

Sammy and Amos soaking up a sun puddle
As tough as it was, I think that going through this process with our kids will help when it comes time for them to mourn the loss of a person they love.  So, I hope some of this is helpful for those of you going through the same thing!  My main suggestions would be to try to think like a kid in explaining things, and you'll touch on what matters most to them. Be sure to ask you kids how they feel about it and if they have any questions that you can answer!  We are now at a point where we want to go down to one dog, however, Amos is 11 and won't be around a whole lot longer.  So, now we start the debate as to whether to get a puppy to keep Amos happy for his last days, or wait until he is gone....but I think we've determined we can't ever NOT have a dog.  And so, stay tuned as we have been shopping around and may be adopting a new homeless pet to live with, love with, and put up with for another decade or so very soon! ;-)


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