Yesterday, I had to pick up my granddaughter from middle school so she could say goodbye to her beloved dog Penny. Driving to the vet with her sobbing next to me broke my heart, but I knew she had to have a chance to tell Penny how much she loved her and stroke her soft fur. Pets are wonderful for children growing up, but when they die, it is a devastating loss.
Penny joined my daughter’s family as a therapy dog for their oldest, who was so terrified of dogs that she was almost hit by a car running away from one in a panic. She was extremely anxious when her family visited anyone with a dog, and that seemed to be most folks they knew. I wrote about all of our efforts to help her overcome her fear through animal therapy in It’s a Dog’s World, but Not All are Huge Fans of Dogs and Keep Maggie Daley Park a Dog-Free Zone. Ultimately, the only way to overcome her dog phobia was to get a dog. A perfect dog. Penny.
Penny survived cancer a few years ago, only to die suddenly from an undetected tumor that caused a ruptured spleen. While it was a shocking loss for my grandkids and their parents, they were spared the agony of seeing a beloved old dog deteriorate while debating about when its quality of life was gone. My grandsons watched their gentle Rory become deaf, mostly blind, and barely able to move before he had to be euthanized. Another granddaughter held Aspen as she suffered through a seizure. Aspen’s companion Savannah, whom my granddaughter loved since she was a baby, had died a year earlier. For her and her younger brothers, the joy of growing up with a pet also meant the sorrow of losing one.
As a child, I wanted a dog for years, but my parents refused to give in to my pleas. In desperation, my younger brothers and I mounted a full out campaign, complete with posters, chants, promises, and persistent whining. It turned out my mother was afraid of dogs but didn’t want to share this. Instead, she made up random excuses about why having a dog was a bad idea. Nevertheless, we persisted and Checkers entered our lives when I was probably twelve years old. For the first years, I fulfilled my pledge to train, walk, and feed the dog. By the time college rolled around for me, however, Checkers was largely my mother’s responsibility, with a little help from my brothers. When my youngest brother was in college, my parents sold the house and gave Checkers away. At that point in my life, I was busy with other things and only mildly annoyed. My youngest brother, however, was heartbroken and angry.
When my own children wanted a dog, I was ready. It was their father, not an animal lover, they had to convince. We had the added problem of my son’s allergies and limited our search to non-shedding breeds. Thus Rocky, a Yorkshire terrier, entered our lives. My children quickly reneged on their promises to care for him other than supplying him with lots of love and occasional walks. By the time he neared the end of his life and we had to consider each day if this was the time to euthanize him, my older kids were in college. With great sorrow, my youngest daughter and I carried Rocky into the same vet practice where Penny died to have him “put to sleep.” My daughter was the same age my granddaughter who just suffered the heartbreak of losing Penny. She also cried hysterically over the death of Rocky.
No matter when a dog comes into a child’s life, there is an inevitable sad loss down the road. For my children who had dogs before their children were born, the dog’s death was their kids' first concrete exposure to dying. Difficult explanations followed as they adjusted to the absence of the pet who had always been there. The book Lifetimes is very helpful to explain death to younger children. For my almost thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her twelve-year-old cousin, the questions become harder to answer and the grief lasts longer.
Today, all of us who loved Penny are sad. The house is too quiet. The dog bed is no longer part of the family room décor. Rather than focusing on her death, however, I am choosing to remember the joy she brought to her family and how her gentle nature helped a child learn this was a dog she could safely love. To Penny and all of the pets that enrich our lives, may the memory of what they gave to us outweigh the pain of losing them.