October 16, 2014

Atheist Mama: What do you do when your beloved pet dies and your children know you don't believe in heaven?

During a family trip to the river.
Monday night, we euthanized our dog, Bootsie. He'd been with me for ten years--for comparison, my husband and I began dating in 2006, my oldest son was born in 2006, and our youngest was born in 2010. To say that he was a big part of our family is an understatement. If you think about it, he was a founding member, of sorts.

But this is not a post that is just about my furry boy. It's a post about children, secular parenting, and how to comfort your children when they know you don't believe in heaven (or in the case of our youngest, don't know anything ABOUT heaven).

Well-meaning people continue to say, "You'll see him again!", which depending on the particular sect you're involved with may or may not be accurate. We like to think that God will have mercy on our furry companions, but there's simply no knowing, now is there?

Alas, I digress.

Can you say "target acquired"?

When we made the decision to end Bootsie's suffering, we put the question to the boys: Do you want to say goodbye?

The youngest had no clue what was happening, which was what we expected--he's pushing four, it's a bit hard to conceptualize. Our 7-going-on-8-year-old understood what was happening perfectly, and experienced the emotional reaction we expected--he was entirely shattered.

In the end, we decided (with help from our oldest son) that we would all go and say goodbye. My mother and sister followed us, so that the boys would not have to be there for the end, while my husband and I could stay as long as we needed to.

In the exam room, we all sat while they carried Boots in and laid him on a thick blanket. He couldn't walk, and his body trembled. It was sad to think that this would be my boys' last memories of him. Our eldest curled up next to me while Boots laid his head in my lap and I stroked his ears.

So what comfort can you offer a child who knows you don't believe in heaven or God?

We started with how our favorite memories of Boots will never go away. We told stories back and forth, and talked about all the funny things he had done over the years. We laughed and cried. We talked about writing the stories down, so we would always remember them.

"What have you got there, kid?"

Then we talked about how we could honor Bootsie's memory every single day. We could love people like he loved people--even though he got off to a rough start, he always gave people the benefit of a doubt. He always believed that they had good intentions, unless they proved otherwise. We could be loyal to our friends and family like he was to us. We could play and have fun like he played. In those ways, we decided, we could carry him with us always.

And then, of course, I shared my most comforting thought--that energy can't be created, and it can't be destroyed. Our Boots would be gone, but he would always be a part of the world around us.

I've faced subtle questioning on this subject over the past week. People who know that I am an atheist seem slightly curious on how we are handling this, given that our children are young and this is one of the most painful events they've had to deal with in their short lives.

"Patience is a virtue...patience is a virtue..."

I don't know that telling them we will see Boots again would have been helpful, honestly. I don't know that I would want that hope for myself, even, because the special bond we shared has left a truly ragged hole in my heart. I don't know that it would be anymore comforting, during the million and one times a day that something small reminds us of him right now, to think to myself, "I will see him again someday." I feel like, especially right now, that would leave me longing for the end of my days--something that I don't want for myself, and something that I most certainly don't want for my child.

Our comforting is more grounded in the physical, in the real world, in the naturalness of the here and now, but I think it works. It's the reality of what we face--that this member of our family is gone--but there's also the comfort of having things we can do to remember him, actively, every single day.

And that's truly comforting indeed.

"Oh. Hi, Mom! It's story time!"

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