Just something. Because nothing teaches a child more about responsibility, about life, and about death, than does a pet. I was reminded of this several months ago when a nice lady named Sarah sent me a thank you note for a condolence card I had sent her family.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first condolence card I sent them. The first followed the death of their beloved Golden Retriever, “Penny.” The second was for a far greater tragedy, the loss of human family members in an accident just a few weeks later.
Penny, an elderly twelve year old, came to our office because of a lump her owners discovered. The mass was about eight inches long, firm and smooth, lying along the bottom of her ribcage on the right side, hidden by the long hairs of the apron most Golden Retrievers wear.
I had hoped this growth might be a lipoma, a benign, fatty tumor common to many older dogs. A needle aspirate would reveal fat globules, a good diagnosis, and a happy outcome. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
The syringe immediately filled with bright, red blood. A feeling of dread came over me as I realized that what should have been a harmless swelling was probably my old nemesis, a hemangiosarcoma. Hemangiosarcomas are very serious, malignant tumors of blood-bearing tissues. They usually originate in the spleen, but can spread to the liver, heart, or even blood vessels under the skin. Such was the case with Penny.
I discussed options with the family. A referral to an oncologist could confirm the diagnosis and offer treatment. Sometimes radical surgery and chemotherapy can buy these patients more time, although it may only be a few weeks.
The family decided to take Penny home and enjoy what time she had. Before they left our office, I warned them of what Penny might endure. A patient with a hemangiosarcoma often goes through bleeding episodes---these tumors actually bleed internally, and the dog will become very weak and pale. The patient may die during this time, but sometimes will rally, only to go through several of these cycles over the next few days or weeks.
That night Penny had one of those “bleeds.” Painful for her family to see her that way, the next day they came to the difficult decision to put her to sleep.
Surrounded by her family in the back of their van, I proceeded with the euthanasia. The youngest son was knelt closest to me, and I could see the grief in his eyes as the solution entered Penny’s vein. I don’t know if this was the young man’s first loss of something he loved, but I do know that he loved that dog. He took the euthanasia hard, but he took it brave. Braver than me.
As euthanasias go, this was a tough one. It was impossible to separate the sad feelings for Penny from even sadder ones inside me. A hemangiosarcoma killed my dog, “Chrissy,” and ended a 34 year relationship with my first family of Border Collies that began when I was six years old.
Those dogs were my friends when I was young, saw me through my entire education, the deaths of my parents, and most of my marriage and career. I witnessed some of them be born, watched some of them die, and somewhere along the way learned that you cannot have one without the other.
A few weeks after Penny died, an unforeseen event struck the family. In her note, Sarah wrote “Little did we know how our grieving Penny would in some way prepare us for the tragic deaths.”
I can’t help but think it is better for a child to experience death, and the emotions associated with it, first with a pet, than with Grandma or Grandpa…or worse. To experience the feelings of death, such as denial, anger, and acceptance, is an invaluable teacher. Not that a pet’s death will make subsequent deaths easier, but perhaps, at least, more understandable.
We all carry scars from life, but in spite of, and because of them, we carry on. The death of a pet can teach a child that even though the sadness never completely goes away, the wounds do heal with time.
So get your kid a pet, and give them an education in life like no other.
By Dr. John H. Jones