Disclaimer: This post was originally published in the blog section of Nurture My Child, a website that helps Austin families find camps, schools and childcare. I’m paid to write a blog and do social media work for NMC, but I would’ve done this post for free.
If you read my bio on the Nurture My Child page, you’ll see I initially went to college intending to become a vet. My plan changed when I realized I wasn’t very good at biology and chemistry — two subjects that are kind of important to anyone practicing medicine. Naturally, my next step after changing majors was to get a dog. My first college dog was a disaster. He was dumb. He was mean. He did not play well with others. He went to live on a farm in the country. No really…I gave him to a lady who lived on a farm.
My second college dog was amazing. She was sweet and loyal and perfectly happy swimming in the muddy pond water at Research Park on campus at Texas A&M University. A year or so before I married my wife, the dog and I moved to Austin, trading muddy Brazos County water for the clear green waters of Town Lake (remember when Lady Bird Lake was Town Lake?). We lived happily together as a family. My wife and I had three kids. We all loved my 2nd college dog. But like all dogs, her time on this earth was all too short. Last week, we said goodbye to my dear College Dog.
College Dog and I had 12.5 wonderful years together, but she was old and tired and cancer had taken its toll on her body. It was time. The decision to have her euthanized was easy — sad, but easy. The hardest part would be telling the kids. This was the first time my wife and I would truly discuss death with our children. But preparing for that conversation raised some big questions: Will the kids grasp the concept of death and its finality? They are all under 5 years old, after all. Should we even tell them College Dog died? Wouldn’t it be easier to just say she went to a retirement home for old dogs out in West Texas? Should we just read them that Rainbow Bridge poem and be done with it?
In the end, we chose the most honest route we felt we could take with our small children. We told the kids on a Friday that the upcoming weekend would be our last with the dog. Through tears, we explained that College Dog was very sick and she was going to die on Monday. We explained that the dog had a disease called cancer and that the vet would give her a shot that would make her stop breathing. We told them about cremation.
Our daughter, an always-curious five-year-old, asked if she could get sick from hugging the dog. We assured her she could not and she was free to hug the dog as much as she wanted to. She asked what exactly cancer is, and we tried to explain it in age-appropriate terms. She asked if College Dog was going to heaven. It fits our belief system, so we told her yes. She asked when we were getting a new dog. We just laughed and cried and told her not for a while.
Our oldest son, a three-year-old bowling ball of a boy, leaned in to kiss the dog, but backed away because she was “too stinky to kiss.” Again, laughter and tears.
Our youngest son cooed and smiled from my wife’s lap. He’s only five months old, so we didn’t get into specific details with him. I’m sure he’ll have his day sometime in the future.
I was surprised how well my kids were able to accept this hard truth about life. Each of the two older ones coped in their own way. They asked questions, drew pictures, and wrote notes about our old dog. We all hugged on College Dog as much as we could during her last weekend.
In the end, although our conversations with the kids about death and illness weren’t easy, I’m so glad we didn’t just pretend to send College Dog to that “retirement home in West Texas.” Her death was a sad time for our family, but it was a chance for us to grow together and celebrate all the fun times we had with her.
Take care, College Dog. We’ll miss you. Thank you for all the lessons you taught me along the way, from our first day together to our very last.