Love, Family

What Having A Pet Can Teach Your Kid About Life, Love, And Yes, Even Loss

Photo: Unplash; Levi Saunders
death of pet

As parents, we try to protect our children from life’s pain, so we tend to keep them in an illusion — a rosy bubble — as if life is a one-sided experience. At least, I do, while knowing full well that life is both pain and joy, highs and lows, light and darkness. But recently I had to reconsider my parenting approach, as the time had come for me to outgrow it and step out of my own bubble of fear.

“Mommy, Mommy!” my five-year-old son, Samuel, emits a squeal of excitement. “Can we get a puppy, too?”

We’re at the park, on a playground facing a fenced area for dogs, where dozens of pets are running free, chasing after Frisbees and balls thrown by their human mommies and daddies. A heavy bomb drops straight from my mind into my heart:

Three years ago, we lost Max, our family dog, to an illness.

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It was difficult beyond words. Some say that people grieve more deeply over losing a pet than a family member. Perhaps. So how can I put myself and my son through this excruciating experience again? Because at some point, inevitably, it will come.

Later, at home, burrowing into the couch and cradling a cup of warm chamomile tea while scrolling through the TV channels, I recall all the happy moments I had with Max. From the first day I brought him home from the rescue event at our local Petco — a small ball of fur with enormous black eyes, deep and expressive — he spontaneously claimed my heart and my pillow.

But then my mind wanders off to some abstract, melancholy thoughts about life and stumbles upon the pre-ordained fact that, sooner or later, we will all lose someone dear, and it will shatter our hearts into thousands of pieces.

So what are we supposed to do? Stay close-hearted and disconnected from the vast variety of life’s experiences out of fear of getting hurt? Definitely, it’s the safer way, but is that really living? After all, we cannot hide from life’s pain.

And even if we try to crawl into some dark hole and become invisible to avoid bad things happening to us, that’s simply existing and not fully living. Right?

I do believe that a variety of experiences make our lives richer and more exciting and fulfilling. So the solution is not to control life’s contrast, but to learn how to develop coping skills to withstand its storms.

If only we could trust our ability to manage life’s pain, then regain our emotional balance and the faith to keep on going, joyfully! And that’s the key because it’s not what happens to us that causes us pain, but our prolonged emotional response — usually the belief that “something went wrong,” when in fact, it didn’t! Life just happened.

Where we get into trouble is when we deny ourselves the right to feel negative emotions.

What we resist persists, and in time grows even stronger. But once we realize that life is inherently both joy and happiness, sadness and grief, and that all emotions are normal, healthy states in our human experience, we can make pain our friend, shaking its clammy hand — and we immediately feel better, because acceptance brings peace. It’s just how the psychology works, the "law of dominant effect."

What happens in a dark room when you turn on the light? The darkness dissipates, and the same thing happens to our pain when we surrender to it.

My eyes fall on my son, playing on his iPod next to me, and I smile. I love him so much! He is my fifth child, and by now I know a little about the parenting journey, and how each bump on the road is a great opportunity to demonstrate to our children how we handle a breakdown. Our kids, by default, are observing the way we handle life, absorbing all our fears and insecurities, internalizing them and gradually even becoming them.  

This understanding always gives me chills. So perhaps getting a puppy and letting her (it must be a girl!) fill our hearts with happiness and joy, and enjoying her delicious presence for as long as it’s meant to be is the right thing to do.

And then, when the sad day comes, we’ll cry together, grieve together, and cherish the memories in our hearts forever. It’s an experience we wouldn’t trade for anything — even for avoiding the inevitable pain of parting.

Besides, it’s good for kids to own a pet.

It teaches them responsibility and opens their hearts to compassion, plus they develop a sense of selfless contribution and respect for another living creature.

And most important, my kids will develop coping skills: learning to deal with upsets early on; understanding that emotional pain is a normal aspect of human experience; and finding healthy ways to soothe their discomfort.

Kids learn these from us, their less-than-perfect parents trying to do their best, who (like me) may listen to soft, meditative music, take a lavender-scented bubble bath, call a positive, reassuring friend, or sip warm milk or herbal tea with honey. Or binge-watch Harry Potter movies, if all else fails. And in time, as the cloud of sadness begins to lift, the light of excitement will emerge, guiding us forward toward brand new experiences.

And so, the invisible bubble of protection around my son bursts open, our eyes connect and I wink at him, responding to his happy smile. After all, he’s not a fragile, helpless kid, but a confident, independent little person. I get excited for our new adventure together, as if already tasting her sweet kisses on my lips and her puppy breath on my cheek.

Already, I am feeling her presence serving its purpose — to teach me how to love purely and unconditionally, the way she does, leaving a permanent paw print of love on my heart. After all, pets are angels sent by God to diffuse our human nastiness. So how can I deprive my son of experiencing that?

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Katherine Agranovich holds a Ph.D. in Natural Health Studies and specializes in Integrative Mental Health. She is a Certified Medical and Anesthesiology Hypnotherapist and the author of Tales of My Large, Loud, Spiritual Family.

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