Over the holidays, my family went through a series of pet tragedies. Over the course of six months, our Boston terrier, Molly, had continued to lose weight until she was down to nine pounds. After endless rounds of tests, we figured out she was suffering from a cancer that she had no chance of recovering from. She passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.
Then our one-eyed, snaggle-toothed Himalayan cat, Daniel, suddenly stopped eating. He and his poor mix of genetics had survived some spectacular illnesses before, but this time something terrible ate him alive from the inside at a tremendous speed. I put him to sleep four days before Christmas while my daughter cried in the waiting room outside alone.
In our house we deal with problems on the Hermione Principle: consult an expert, and in the meantime get a book. We found one of the many great books explaining grief and loss and the concept of the Rainbow Bridge for the kid, and that worked fairly well as things go. Books have a power adult words never will. What is written is forever, while what is spoken dissipates in the air unless it leaves a scar.
Still, I thought that it might help my daughter to have something to do with her hands. When Molly was starting to sink, my wife and I talked about the inevitable. She was against burying her on my mom’s property, where the kid could visit her, because my wife didn’t want to see Molly’s dead body. I was against keeping her cremains in something because moving a dog’s ashes to a new home is literally the most depressing thing I can think of. Hell, I broke down in tears just putting the dog’s old Halloween costumes away.
So we settled on a paw print. You can buy the basic kit clay for these at Babies”R”Us for less than $10. They’re intended for baby’s handprint, but they work just fine even for a large dog. On her last night on Earth, I pressed Molly’s print into the clay and let it dry for two days.
On the front we made a small memorial, but on the back my daughter painted a small mural of Molly crossing the rainbow bridge. I told her she had to be careful since we had only the one print and we couldn’t get another. She took her task gravely seriously, carefully selecting her paints and brushes and moving with a meticulous slowness you don’t often see in a six-year-old. She completed it with a dark blue sky and after it dried, we mounted it on the counter.
I told her that whenever she was sad about Molly, all she had to do was pick up the clay pad and look at it. We told her she could display either the paw print or the picture, whichever she needed that day. Over the course of several weeks, I would see her walk by the memorial, sigh and switch the sides around. It gave her a tiny amount of control over something we can never control.
Not long after I was taking our new puppy, a ridiculous Boston/pit bull mixed named Piper, out to pee on the back porch so I could avoid the rain, and I saw that my daughter’s chalk mural had a new addition. There was a self-portrait of her with a word balloon that said, “I miss Molly.” For quite a while she’s been dealing with her emotions by drawing them, but I was moved deeply by this particular one. My daughter only draws on the porch when she wants to be completely alone with her thoughts (I can see her through the back door while I write).
It has been terrible to watch her sweet heart break as 2015 came to a close, but if I have any advice for other parents out there, it’s that you can give a kid some closure by encouraging him or her to create in response to death. In a way, it’s the only way to face death on even ground. People (and pets) die, but as long as we remember them and make things in their honor, the world cannot fully be without them.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.