28 Nov 2012

Birth and Death: Helping a Toddler Say Goodbye

I've learned a lot in the last few days. Our family knew already for a few weeks that a tough time was looming ahead of us. Our dog was diagnosed with stomach cancer and wasn't responding well to medications. After a difficult, painful weekend, I arranged for a veterinarian to come to our home to euthanize her.
Our newborn Jacob with Quinoa
I had asked my vet what she thought we should do with Jacob, now 19 months, during this process. She recommended that her assistant take him into a different room, and told me that when I talked to him about our beloved Quinoa, I should try not to cry because it could make him fear death. Well, I knew right away that this wouldn't be possible for me to accomplish.

Quinoa was a sweet, gentle soul who taught me about good parenting, including cuddling, co-sleeping, and patience. Oh, the patience that this dog had! She taught Jacob the importance of being kind (she would get up and calmly walk away if he wasn't), sharing food with others (she was always polite but she did have a way of letting him know when she deserved a piece of his bread or a morsel of his egg) and catching snowballs (he hated snow this season until he saw Quinoa playing in it about two weeks ago). There was no way I wasn't going to cry over parting with her.

My toddler throwing a snowball for Quinoa, in her last week.
As Quinoa's final days approached, Ian and I both realized that Jacob would be most upset if he saw me having such intense emotions but was separated from me. He had to be there with us. When the time came, Ian cradled Quinoa's head in his lap, and I put my lips to her ear and told her all about the car rides she would enjoy and the cheese she'd love to eat again. Jacob stood quietly between us and watched, one small hand on my back and the other holding my shirt sleeve.

We stayed with Quinoa for many hours after she died. I washed off the urine that she had released at the moment of her passing, and we took turns grooming her still soft and shiny coat. Jacob found an old bottle of her ear drops and tried to administer them. We went over every single part of her body - we felt every lump and bump, noted which of her toes were white and which black, remarked on the beautiful, warm orange colouring on the underside of her tail and the details in her clear, blue eye. We felt her body become cooler, and then stiff. Spending this time with her body helped each of us to celebrate her life and accept her transition. Jacob looked at her and asked me, "Owee?" I told him, no, not anymore. He responded, "Oh."

I remembered that we deeply need to do many of these tasks with our newborns, too, in order to meet them, celebrate their birth, and establish bonding and breastfeeding. When new parents are free from medical interference, they examine every tiny bit of their babies, touching them everywhere, even smelling and licking them. This is what we require as mammals and humans. We and our loved ones, both those we are welcoming and those we are wishing farewell, deserve this time and space together to try to come to terms with the mystery of consciousness. Too frequently, babies are whisked away and bathed by nurses, and bodies of loved ones are "touched up" and cleaned by professionals instead of those who knew them best.

Everywhere I go, I think of Quinoa. I look around for her, but she's not lying under the painting of Everest on the wall, or by the window, or at the front or back door, or on our bed. I regret that Jacob is not at an age where he will remember her, but we'll tell him stories and show him photos of his dear friend. He may have a sense that death is something that happens, and through which we hold each other, in the midst of our tears.

Quinoa playing in the snow with our toddler


  1. I think you handled it beautifully. We fear death, in part, because we as a culture alienate ourselves from death and dying. By refusing to do that with your beloved pet, you have set your child up for understanding instead of fear.

  2. I think you did exactly the right thing. The vets recommendation seems more fearful to me than what you did. Death should be honored as a part of our existence and family pets are often the first way a child does that. This post was beautiful.

  3. Aaw, that is so sad, touching, beautiful and inspirational. My children were with me as my mother died, and while we didn't clean her body, we did hold it and touch it and stay with it until it was cold, and we felt she had truly passed. These shared experiences are such an important part of our humanity. Condolences, and thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. hi, i just found your blog and started reading, it was so nice what you did. My cat died when my daughter was 2 weeks old. i missed her so much... i liked to thought that she waited so she coul meet her,
    my condolences

  5. What a beautiful and touching moment. Your story made me cry because I am afraid of this inevitability. I hope I am able to face it and bring as much grace and sensitivity to the experience for my child as you were able to with yours.

    Apologies for veering slightly off topic, but I'd also like to tell you that I just discovered your blog (courtesy of blue milk) and am thoroughly inspired and impressed. You are an incredibly brave man to share your story and your self so openly. I'm about to be a mom (and happen to be cis-female) and I am inspired by the things you write about parenting. Thank you!

  6. You feel jacob won't remember Quinoa but you will be surprised about what children remember. I don't think it is unlikely that this member of your family will be forgotten. I think you did a wonderful job with this and have taught him it is okay to have feelings.

  7. Jacob will remember my daughter was 11 months when my baby Otis passed on and she remembers him and even recalls doing stuff with him. I keep his memory alive for our whole family. Pets come into our lives to teach us to have fun no matter what, love no matter who, give with your whole heart and trust even after trust has been deceived ( my boy was a rescue from a very abusive situation) and he loved us like he had never been through that. It is devastating when we lose our furbabies but we must not dwell on them leaving us but cherish everything they taught us. You taught Jacob a very important thing that day. It is ok to say goodbye.

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  12. What a great post, I got really emotional reading it. Losing a dog who has been with you for many years is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing.