We recently lost our sweet Katie Dog to heart failure. A few weeks before that, we lost our cat Orwell to old age. In both cases, we buried them behind the shed near where my own childhood horses and dogs are buried — a morbid, but peaceful, reminder that our family has been on this land for several decades.
Katie was mostly our son’s dog. They begged for a tiny dog, and I said yes, if we could find a rescue. I’m not much of a tiny dog person myself. I like my dogs large enough that they’re too hard to accidentally step on. My Elsie — who at 16 years old still runs through the yard — is about 35 pounds, and she seems fairly small to me.
But I want my children to make their own choices. So when friends contacted us about a little rat terrier, a starving and sickly stray they had nursed back to health, I said… maybe. She was heartworm positive. I talked to our children about this extensively before we decided to adopt her. We explained what it meant and how it might change her life. They knew her life would be limited. But in the end, we all decided her sweet little spirit needed a home and we loved her. We had lost our family dog Patchen some years before, and the kids remembered that loss. Pet death hurts, but we all knew it was possible to grieve well and then get back up and go on. So we brought her home.
During her first few weeks of country life she was very guarded. She wasn’t sure what to make of all the space. But it wasn’t long before she was running across the expanse and following the hens, most of which were bigger than her. Mostly, though, she liked to cuddle with my son Elijah. She cuddled in his lap during movies, slept by his feet when he slept, and ran to him when he got home.
I mentioned earlier that we buried Katie and Orwell near where my own dogs are buried. I remember when my own childhood dog passed away. I was in high school. I’d had the dog since I was five, and as an only child he was literally my best friend. I’d named him Pups and we were inseparable. I remember the day my dad broke it to me he had passed. We lived in town, but we drove out to the valley to bury him. It was pouring rain, and, though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I knew my dad loved me because he cared enough to give her a proper burial. I remember not many years after that when my father lost his own dear horse, an ornery spunky pony he called Toney. They had more in common than my father would ever care to admit. It broke his heart to bury him, and my own horse, out by that pond.
No matter how many ways we try and hide it, pet loss hits us deep in the gut and the heart and says a lot about who are, and, I think, who we want to be.
We were all shocked the morning Katie passed away. It was peaceful but quick. We waited until near sundown to bury her, allowing each of the children to touch her body and ask any questions they wanted. I figure the best way you can teach your children about the circle of life is to let them see it up close; let them ask questions; let them process as they need. We dug up some daffodil bulbs from nearby, evidence of the location of the old home place that had housed my relatives at the turn of the century. We put the bulbs in between Orwell and Katie, not far from my own dogs Pups and Peanut and my horse Stormy and my dad’s horse Tony. I watched the sun go down in the trees behind us, lighting up Springs Mountain an auburn red. I felt grateful that I didn’t feel the need to hide sadness from my children.
I have been struggling with how to frame this column and getting down to the root of what I really want to share. You might read this and think of my poor children, heartbroken over this loss. They’re not. Are they sad? Sure. But they knew this day was coming. And they say they’d do it again. Katie needed a family to love, and we all fit together rather well even if it was a little too short. I think the core idea is that I want to share the importance of talking about death, of letting children experience it as a natural process, letting them create their own rituals and choose their level of involvement with the process. It feels like sacred work.
I think back to the days when my own pets died and my own parents let me grieve as I needed, even sharing in the grief. It was in those moments I knew that love is bigger than we can ever name.