When Your Child's Pet Dies
How do you help a kindergartner understand that she’s going to lose the dog she’s loved her whole life?
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When my husband, Chris, and I told our 6-year-old daughter, Haley, that our dog was sick and the vet couldn’t make him better, she started writing him letters and drawing him pictures.
“To Bailey,” one note read. “I love you and you are the best dog…” She stopped and turned to me: “How do you spell ever?”
She taped the pictures, including one of her walking Bailey on a leash with a little cloud above them, all over her bedroom wall. Later she collected his squeaky toys, which he’d lost interest in, and told me she wanted to keep them forever. I wasn’t sure how she would take the news about Bailey—he was our first family pet—but I didn’t expect the outpouring of emotion. My heart broke for her.
She’d always adored Bailey, our 12-year-old beagle-German shepherd mix, but all of a sudden she wanted to put his food in his bowl, give him Pup-Peroni treats and take him for walks. When he stood by the door, she’d grab his leash and say she was going outside, so we’d watch her from the front steps. One day she brought him inside and told me he’d stepped in his pee and she needed to clean him up, something she’d seen me do. “I’ll just wipe off all his paws because I don’t know which one it is,” she said, insisting on wetting the washcloth and doing it herself. When she started getting out of bed at night to give him “one more hug,” I began to wonder how she would ever deal with losing him.
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People used to laugh at me for naming my daughter Haley when I had a dog named Bailey. My mom said I’d get their names mixed up, and I told her that would never happen.
“Baileyyy!” I’d find myself yelling when I wanted my daughter to pick up her Legos. “I mean, Haleyyy!”
She’d often ask me, “Did you say Haley or Bailey?”
Chris and I adopted Bailey from the Washington Humane Society in 2005, three years before Haley was born. He’d been abandoned in a park in Southeast D.C. He was about 2 years old, weighed 48 pounds, and had a little mysterious slit in his tongue. It wasn’t long before he was sleeping in our bed and nudging his nose under my arm when I was working on my laptop so he could rest his head on the keyboard. He couldn’t stand it when he didn’t have our full attention; friends made fun of us for treating him too much like a person.
Above: Whenever Haley sat down to watch Dora the Explorer, Bailey followed. Right: When Haley was a baby, she and Bailey liked to wait at the window for Chris to get home.
We’d prepped Bailey for Haley’s arrival by carrying around an old Cabbage Patch Kid swaddled in a baby blanket, and putting the doll in the Pack ’n Play that Haley would be using. Haley and Bailey clicked from day one, but he put up with a lot from her. When she was a toddler, we’d read her a book called Be Gentle with the Dog, Dear!, but she still liked to pull his tail and pinch him. She doesn’t have any siblings, so I think she started to see him as a brother. When he occasionally decided to lie on her bed at night, instead of ours, her face lit up. “He likes me more,” she’d say. She nicknamed him “Buddy.”
When Haley was a baby, she and Bailey liked to wait at the window for Chris to get home.
When Chris felt something behind Bailey’s right ear in the fall of 2014, we told ourselves it was probably a cyst. The worst thing the dog had ever had was a tick; we couldn’t imagine this was anything serious. I was at work a week later when our vet, Dr. Richard Weitzman of Liberty Falls Veterinary Clinic in Potomac, called with Bailey’s biopsy results. The words I remember hearing are “malignant” and “fast-moving.”
I hung up with him, called VCA Veterinary Referral Associates and made an appointment with a veterinary oncologist for the following day. The vet took Bailey into another room to examine him, then met me back in her office. I was sitting in a chair; Bailey was on the floor next to me. As I listened to her talk about treatment options, I started to cry, and Bailey got up and rubbed his face against my knee. “See?” I remember saying. “Look at this dog. He’s comforting me.”
We waited until after Christmas to tell Haley about Bailey. We’d decided not to do chemotherapy or radiation—even if we could have afforded it, there was only a 50-50 chance that it would help. The vet couldn’t tell us how much time Bailey had left—we were giving him an anti-inflammatory drug to try to slow the growth of the tumor—so there was no reason to upset Haley when the dog was still acting like himself. When we took him to Rehoboth Beach in late October, he tried to get into the front seat of the car and drive, like he always had.
He still nosed his way under the covers every night. I found myself taking more photos of him: Bailey playing in the snow. Bailey wearing his “Happy New Year” hat. Bailey and Haley lying at the end of our bed watching Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
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For a while, we took Bailey on extra long hikes, gave him more chew sticks and tried to pretend he wasn’t dying. But by early 2015 he was losing weight and slowing down. The tumor was getting bigger, and a few of the parents at Haley’s bus stop—Bailey walked there with us most mornings—wanted to know what was wrong with him. We asked Weitzman’s colleague, Dr. Elise Geldon, who’d started seeing Bailey, how you tell a kindergartner who’s an only child that she’s going to lose her best friend. She suggested we tell Haley that as much as the vet wanted to help Bailey, she couldn’t, and that one day he would be in heaven with lots of other dogs. Her technician, Patty, offered to email me a list of children’s books she thought might be helpful. Geldon said Bailey could still have a few months left, or even longer, and she gave me her cellphone number. “Text or call me anytime,” she said.
Soon after Bailey got sick, Haley started drawing pictures of the two of them.
The day after the appointment, we told Haley that when Bailey was in heaven he could run around with his friends who were already there—Cody, Sammy, Sadie and Cleatus—and eat pancakes and bacon at every meal. “Will he be with people, too, or just dogs?” she asked. “Who feeds him there?” She wanted to know if Bailey would see her great-uncle, Andy, or her great-grandma, Gigi. I told her I wasn’t sure but I hoped so. She asked how he was going to die, and I told her the vet would give Bailey medicine that would make him go to sleep, and then he wouldn’t hurt anymore. I wasn’t ready for that question, and probably said more than I should have. “Stop talking about it,” she said.
Bailey’s health started to go downhill fast. Haley was used to tossing him pieces of her Eggo waffles (usually the burned parts) from the table every morning, but he stopped eating them. Eventually she started putting her plate on the floor when she was done so he could lick the syrup, which he still loved. “Give him anything he wants,” Geldon had told me, “whatever makes him happy.” He ate rotisserie chicken and rice, Corn Pops, Chick-fil-A nuggets, eggs, burgers and hot dogs.
I ordered Saying Goodbye to Lulu and I’ll Always Love You, both about a child dealing with a dog’s death, but Haley still preferred her favorite book, Bailey, about a dog who spends a day at school with a bunch of little kids. For a few weeks, she only wanted to wear shirts with dogs on them. “I’m writing a book about Bailey,” she announced one night. My dog Bailey is very sick, she wrote. He has a lump behind his ear.
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