By Lois Ann Ell
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” –Brene Brown
The day we decided to euthanize our family dog, the question of how to teach children about death should have come up. Perhaps a more prepared parent would have researched this online beforehand. But this was the last day I would hold Butter, our sweet, brave mastiff-hound mix, so I wasn’t thinking about best parenting practices. I was instead thinking about the agonizing burden at hand, to have the power to decide when another’s life should end. I was thinking about how I would never again smell the earthy, salty scent of his white ears. But by not thinking about the parenting part of this experience, I may have done something right.
My children returned shortly after Butter had been buried to help arrange the grave. While my husband moved dirt around and planted purple vinca on the soft mound of soil in our front yard, I continued the necessary, ongoing dialogue one has with young children—albeit while sobbing— like: “Don’t put dirt in your sister’s hair, please.” “No, we are not getting another dog today; please stop asking.” “Don’t pick the petals of the flowers we have just planted.” “Please don’t jump on the grave, honey.” You never stop being a parent in the autopilot sense, even in traumatic situations.
I awkwardly tried to clarify to them what “putting Butter to sleep” meant. I repeated, no, it did not involve reading Dr. Seuss books, or teeth brushing, or singing. I chose not to explain that it was, in actuality, our stoic veterinarian making a house call, a favorite blue cotton blanket, a long syringe and a frightened family member. It was peaceful yet torturous, as his eyes glassed over and his lovely, familiar scent was gone within a minute.
I gave jobs for them to do while we worked at what would now be Butter’s plot, like gathering his water bowl and leash to put in the truck to give away, since looking at those items, I knew, would make me ache in the coming days. I asked them to help brush the ivory hairs off my jeans, Dad’s jeans, their dress, the last of the familiar white snow that fell everywhere in the house like dew on grass in early morning. We stood around the mound and said our favorite things about Butter, and then finally went inside for dinner, and it was over.
If I had to sum up in one word how I felt that day, it would be vulnerable. I fumbled with confusing phrases and groped at attempts to explain death. Regardless, if my children learn to have compassion, respect and a connection to animals, then the method of just showing up authentically works.