Recently one of our cats died. It’s only natural. The cat was about 18 years old, which is pretty old for a cat. I discovered her in the morning and then proceeded to dispose of the body, wrapping it up in an old towel and preparing to bring it to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for disposal.
That night, we decided we should break it to our three-year-old little girl that Hopper (the ex-cat) had died. We sat her down, told her that Hopper had died, she was gone, and our girl asked why she died. We explained that she was old and sick and it was her time to go, but that she was in a better place now. She'd gone to Cat Heaven.
And she sat there, at first looking bewildered, like she wasn't sure how to react. Almost as if she thought we wanted her to react in a certain way, but she didn't know what that way was.
Then I saw it.
Understanding dawned on her that the cat that she had known her whole life, one that she had happily stroked and had been such a permanent part of our household, was gone. My partner, ever the more perceptive of us, asked her if she was sad and then told her to come get a hug. She went to Mommy and crumpled into tears.
My heart broke seeing that.
If there is one thing that I’ve learnt in the three-odd years since becoming a parent, it is this (some advice for new dads here): if you are a parent, your heart will break, over and over and over again. Every time you see pain in your little one, it will break. Accept it, there is nothing you can do but brace yourself.
Back to the topic at hand, our little one spent quite some time attached to Mommy's shoulder crying and when she was done there, she moved to my shoulder by which time she was done crying and was starting to get a handle on things.
This was the first time that she was dealing with death in a very real way. Before, it never really affected her, partly because she didn't fully understand it and partly because it was always someone or something that she wasn't that close to. At least, that's my theory.
This incident brought out a lot of platitudes, you know, the old favourites like “she’s in a better place”, or “she’s not suffering anymore”, but this lead me to think that, as a parent, what do I do when she’s old enough to ask, “How do you know?” I suppose I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.
Following Hopper’s death, we realized that our little one was, at times, more belligerent and her toilet training regressed. Also, she mentioned her great grandmother’s death (which had happened about half a year previously) more often, in a sort of random statement. Of course, we only realized the connection in hindsight and after some analysis, but the reality is that once the understanding of death emerges, no matter how basic, it does have a profound effect, and one that we, as parents, may not make the connection to.
It’s been a few weeks now and things are back to normal.
This whole crying episode, and everything else attached to it, took both me and my partner by surprise, but I know she'll bounce back from it. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I will too.
Nic Ferguson is a Public Relations practitioner and a self- professed Star Wars geek whose ultimate Christmas gift would be an actual working lightsaber. His favorite moments are spent with his partner and their three-year-old daughter, as he educates his daughter on the finer points of 80s pretty-boy rock music, reads Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss, and perfects his "Scary Dad" technique for when she brings her first boyfriend home.