I remember how awkward we all were. Standing there in the front hall, the four of us. Staring at this little grey tabby cat who was pacing around the entrance to our home. His name was Charlie and he was the newest addition to our family. The first with four legs.
The Day We Became Cat People
But we weren’t cat people. And we had no idea what to do with him. I’d never had a pet of any kind. Not a dog, and certainly not a cat. We’d always wanted a dog. But not enough to ever go as far on actually get one. Because, well, reasons that I don’t even remember now. But we definitely were not cat people.
Then a friend of my mum’s needed to find a home for her cat. I wasn’t present for the conversation, and to this day don’t know the details. But one day my mum arrived home from work with a cat, that apparently was now part of our family. And we had no idea what to do with him.
Not Your Average Cat
Well, it turned out that our belief were were not cat people was absolutely appropriate. Charlie didn’t think he was a cat either. In fact, he seemed convinced he was a dog. Have you ever seen a cat get on his hind legs and beg for treats? Well, that was Charlie’s favourite parlour trick. He was everyone’s best friend. Come to our house for any reason and Charlie would be rubbing against your leg. Sit down, there was a cat on your lap within instants.
The Lessons We Learned
Charlie taught our family lessons about love. I think in a pretty typical way. We learned to love something beyond ourselves. A cat with no expectation of anything in return. Except a good belly rub and those treats he was always begging for.
In was in his death that Charlie taught me the real lessons that would transfer to larger life lessons. It was in Charlie’s death I realized I did not have the tools to handle significant change or loss.
The Lessons Of Loss
Charlie’s death was not a surprise. He got sick, and was in pain. We knew he had to be put down, and when it became clear the pain eclipsing his life, he was. The day my dad called me to tell me Charlie was now at peace, I knew it was coming. It was not a surprise. I had been part of the decision.
I was beside myself. I remember not being able to stop crying. My friend who was with me at the time asked me a question that sticks with me 20 years later. She said ‘have you never lost anyone before?’.
And, she was right. Or at least in part. My grandfather had died when I was 10. I had also lost a great aunt, and some other family members.
I had lost people. But, I hadn’t actually learnt how to deal with loss. I was young, and the pain and sadness had faded with time. I had no regrets in those relationships so at the time the loss distilled into lovely memories of my childhood.
When Charlie died I was in my late teens, almost an adult, it made me realize I didn’t actually know how to deal with loss. The kind of loss that’s permanent. Not only death but losing something that was mine. That I cared about. Something I wanted back.
The Sadness Had Faded But Had I Learned Anything About Dealing With Loss?
In time, the sadness faded. I had no regrets in my relationship with Charlie. And, it was a loss that did not have a significant long term impact on my life. So in time the sadness faded, without me needed to do anything about it. But I didn’t forget the panic of the out of control sadness I had experienced. My reaction that felt disproportionate to the situation. It got me thinking. Did I actually have any tools to deal with loss? Not everything painful would just fade away in time. Or even if it did eventually – at what cost? How much damage would I cause myself and my relationship by not being able to cope with loss? Would I pull away from the people I loved? Become afraid to try new things? Could every challenge that came my way have the ability to knock me off my feet?
Happiness Is Resilience
Resilience in the experience of loss, death, and pain wasn’t something I learned over night. It started with the death of my cat, and my takeaway is this. Pets are an opportunity to teach children about love… and loss. To equip them with tools that will arm them with a resilience for the future. So that when loss happens, and it will, we have the tools to get through it. It might not be death. In fact, it will probably be a series of smaller things first. It could be the unwilling loss of something present in our lives. A pet. A relationship. A job. A friend. Or a thing – like a car or a home. Or the loss of an opportunity. This is where loss crosses over into coping with failure. Having the tools to deal with these losses is a key feature of happiness and resilience.
Pets are an easy opportunity for children (and adults!) to learn about love. However, the second part is to learn about loss with resilience. The experience of loving and losing a pet might not teach resilience inherently. It’s something adults need to teach.
We all need tools to be able to understand and deal with loss when it happens in our life. Big or small. Being able to do so allows us to celebrate and love the memories and experience, and not get lost in pain of the ending. Sometimes experiences speak for themselves in the lessons they teach. But frequently, further facilitation of the experience is necessary. Especially if it’s tough lesson. Like loss.
This lesson became a reality for me recently. My children lost their grandfather. And in the midst of the grieving, this was an opportunity to teach my children about death and loss. In a way that would support them to be more resilient adults one day.
Teaching Children To Be Healthy and Resilient In Their Relationship With Loss and Death
The answer found me, in the most interesting of places. At Play School. Non Australian’s might not be familiar with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s children’s program. Recently Play School tackled the issue of dealing with death and loss, for the first time in 53 years. The episode’s name is Beginnings and Endings.
This episode involved input from the National Centre for Childhood Grief. I watched it with my children, aged two and four. This program started some powerful conversations with my kids. Specifically about beginnings, endings, and loss.
Play School provided 9 powerful strategies for helping children deal with loss. These nine tips are a fantastic starting point for conversations. And not just for children.
9 Strategies for Helping Children Deal With Loss
- Provide loving support to allow them to grieve in whatever way they need.
- Know they can ask any questions and be answered truthfully, in age-appropriate language.
- Talk with a trusted person about how they are feeling.
- Remember it’s OK to cry and feel sad.
- Include children in family rituals and other family experiences.
- Share happy memories of the person, or pet, who has died.
- Maintain a ‘normal’ daily routine as much as possible.
- Get out in the fresh air, exercise and have fun!
- Sometimes, particularly when the whole family is grieving, professional help is needed.
Play School, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
The life and the death of my cat Charlie taught me several important lessons. Loss and death could be experienced in a way that was healthy and built resilience. But it would not necessarily happen naturally. Nor would it be adequately learned though time or repeat experience. There are tools, actions, and strategies that can help children and adults have a better experience with loss. Having a pet might be one of the best ways to fully experience the beginning, the middle, and the ending with love.
It also taught me that ever though I’m still not a cat person, it was my cat Charlie that taught me both about love and loss. I’m grateful for both those lessons.