Grief is grief and loss is loss

A reflection delivered by David Morgen

at Northwest UUC on November 13, 2016

Just after Chloe was born, we adopted an older black labrador retriever named Lola. She was the perfect dog for us — she had been trained by whatever family had her before us and she was already old enough to be sedate and patient with children. The girls loved Lola and she loved them.

And so it went until Chloe was four years old and Ella was six, when it became time to have Lola put to sleep. The night before, I sat down next to Lola with the girls and told them that we needed to talk. I told them that Lola had gotten really old, that she was sick and in pain, and that she was not going to get better, so I’d be taking Lola to the veterinarian in the morning and that she was going to die there. Ella asked if the vet would heal her, and I replied that the vet was going to help Lola to die peacefully, without it hurting.

Chloe just started crying while Ella first tried to displace the tension by making jokes, then tried to comfort Lola by giving her a picture she had drawn earlier that day. But after the initial shock passed, we all just sat there in a circle around Lola and talked and cried together. The kids asked questions and I tried to answer them honestly. I kept saying that it was fine to be sad, that we’re all sad about death, and that it’s ok to cry. I patiently repeated that Lola was an old dog, that she was sick, and that she just couldn’t stay with us any longer. I told the girls that Lola loves them and that we’d all been lucky to have her and she’d been lucky to have us, but that it was time for Lola to die.

I said that all living things have to die. “Why?” they asked. I said that death is a natural, important part of life and I made an analogy about flowers blooming and then dying, but as soon as I said that flowers leave behind seeds for new life to come, Ella asked if Lola was going to leave a puppy behind for us and Chloe cried harder because “Lola never had any puppies.” Then she asked “why did Lola forget how to be a puppy?”

I have no idea how long we sat there, but eventually the girls cried themselves out and didn’t have any more questions. Then we all gave Lola big hugs and went upstairs to read bedtime stories, interrupted a few more times by the question “why is Lola going to die tomorrow?”

It was an extremely difficult conversation, of course, but I think a really healthy one. I was honest with my daughters and explained that death is a natural and essential part of life. I let them know that it is reasonable and understandable to be sad in response and showed them that I was sad too. I let them ask all the questions they could think of and tried my best to answer them as clearly and calmly as I could. And I let them have time to sit with Lola and tell her goodbye.

It was a powerful teaching moment and a powerful parenting moment, which actually extended for long after that one night. We talked about Lola a lot for weeks afterwards. And then for years after Lola died, whenever Chloe in particular was going through a sad or difficult time, she would begin to talk about missing Lola or ask why Lola had to die. Lola’s death, and those powerful conversations we had about her feelings of sadness and grief, became the model she had for dealing with sadness or grief at other difficult periods of her life. I believe that just as pets offer us love, companionship, and other valuable lessons while they are with us, they also offer us valuable opportunities to learn to deal with loss and grief in healthy ways. Grief is grief and loss is loss. No matter the scale it’s all consuming, and those small windows of experience help us perceive larger vistas. Perception gained from weathering the loss of a pet develops a muscle for compassion which helps us empathize with folks experiencing things we cannot yet imagine — and that compassion makes the grief more manageable for those grieving.

(photo credit: “Toby” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk)