When Your Child’s Pet Dies

Just before Thanksgiving, my five-year-old’s pet Crusty, a crested gecko, died unexpectedly. We’d given our son Crusty when he turned four, and when he started kindergarten a year later, loaned Crusty to his school as a class pet. I got a call from his panicked teacher in the middle of the school day, saying she’d gone to feed Crusty and found she’d died. (Side note: crested geckos aren’t gendered so my son decided Crusty was a girl. #feminist) My husband and I quickly decided that I would pick Crusty up with our son after school that day and we’d both tell him together that night that Crusty was gone.

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To prep for that conversation, I did what any modern, worried parent would do: I Googled. I found a few helpful articles (and immediately bought this book), but I quickly realized this comes down to my husband’s and my ability to hold a safe container for our boy’s grief. His little animal-loving heart would be broken, and there was nothing we could do to prevent it. Accepting that reality was heart-breaking for me, which cracked open space in me to connect with my little boy: his heart was broken, and so was mine.

Before picking him up at school that day, I let myself grieve on his behalf: for his innocence, for his early life that will likely be defined in part by this experience, for his fourth birthday present and beloved pet Crusty. I grieved for myself too: for the reality that I cannot prevent my children from suffering, for my own innocence (I thought Crusty would outlive our furry pets by years), for the realization that this is the first but certainly not the worst of losses for my boy.

In that process, alone in my quiet home, grief gave way to gratitude. Gratitude for my husband who returns my calls quickly. For teachers who care about my kids and their pets. For my parents and parents-in-law and siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and classmates who I knew would all feel for my boy in his time of need. For my own emotional health and capacity to feel and hold space for pain and grief, both my own and my child’s.

When I left to pick my son up that afternoon, I was hopeful. I knew this would be a painful experience – I had no illusion that he could somehow bypass the grief and go straight to the gratitude and hope – but I also knew it would be bonding. If I could be present with my boy, validate his heartbreak and feel my own, our relationship would be stronger than before. He would learn to trust himself and he would learn to trust me. Would I bring Crusty back to life if I could? In a heartbeat. Was I excited to grow closer to my child? Absolutely.

When I saw his face at kindergarten pickup that day, I smiled and told him I missed him and loved him. I asked about his day, and when he asked about mine in return (as he usually does, the sweet thing), I told him I’d had a good day. And it was true, because, in the end, there was so much more gratitude and hope than anything else.

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