I remember a sense of hesitation the night my husband and I brought our first born home from the hospital. Up to that point, we had had an exclusive relationship with our seven-year-old black lab named Atticus and we were a bit worried about how our dog would take to this new addition. To our surprise, Atticus’s first response was to lick my husband’s hand in loving approval and congratulations. Then, leaning his head curiously over the top of the car seat carrier, he gave our daughter a gentle lick on her forehead. It was the beginning of Atticus’s relationship with children. And it was the beginning of my daughter’s relationship with a pet.

Three more babies came along, a bombardment to Atticus’s lifestyle. With each, his reaction always seemed mixed—an initial sigh of resignation coupled with the consolation that at least it was my husband and not he, who teetered on the bottom rung of the ladder. Regardless, Atticus remained an amazingly gentle pet. He was patient and tolerant of being put into headlock cuddles and having the children lounge on top of him. He was a loyal and faithful defender of his family, our mammalian doorbell as well as our reliable night patroller, rotating from room to room to soothe whichever child was crying or upset. Atticus was a virtuous role model in actions and in deeds.

In life, Atticus was an important companion and teacher for my children. He provided them with a secure base of unconditional, non-judgmental love. Through caring for him, they developed responsibility and compassion. The flicker of an ear, the wag of a tail, the way he flopped his head to the ground with droopy eyes when he was sad or how his body stiffened up when he was in pain—all were important cues that helped to foster the children’s social intelligence and their ability to understand non-verbal communication. Finally, Atticus’s love of the woods and the beach meant that the children spent a lot of time outdoors, breathing fresh air, getting exercise and appreciating nature.

Sadly, Atticus passed away this past April. At the age of 14, his days of struggle had come to outnumber his days of joy. While it was an outcome that we had been anticipating for at least a year, having Atticus euthanized was an extremely difficult decision to make and one for which we had to mindfully prepare our children.

Atticus’s death was the first close death that my children have ever experienced. Yet, though sad, it was a good life lesson and one that will help them cope with other losses throughout their lives. Death is an archetypal experience, and even though children may not understand it or may seem impervious to it, especially younger ones, they are still processing it on an unconscious level. My two-year-old daughter watched with silent inquiry as we buried Atticus on our property and surrounded his grave with his old toys and comforts. A couple of days later, I asked her out of curiosity, “Where’s Atticus?” She replied, “He’s in the mud.” “What is he doing in the mud?” was my next question and she answered in a very matter of fact way, “He’s playing with his toys.” Though my two-year-old may not fully comprehend it, I believe that her first experience of death has provided her with a peaceful and even hopeful sense.

Atticus’s passing presented me with some invaluable teachable moments as a parent. I was intrigued to watch how differently each member of my family reacted to this intense life experience and how they processed their feelings. I learned a great deal about my children’s emotional worlds and how I can better support them. For example, I was able to make the correlation between how my four-year-old son expresses sadness and his often raw outbursts of language and behaviour. It confirmed for me that he is an extroverted feeler. Remarks like “I hate crying” gave me great insight on how I might nurture my very emotional and sensitive boy who “feels” so strongly. My six-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is a stoic, introverted thinker. She was adamant that she did not want to be present when Atticus was euthanized. One night after his death, she asked me why I was crying. I told her, “I miss Atticus.” I then asked her, “Do you miss Atticus?” She replied, “I don’t know. There is something rolling in my stomach but there’s nothing in my head so I don’t know if I miss him or not.” Her response provided me with such clarity and understanding of her character. Atticus’s death has gifted me with greater perceptiveness when it comes to my children. Perhaps they too have gained the same awareness about themselves.

Dealing with the death or the impending death of a pet is difficult for adults as well as children. Here are some ways that our family managed:

1. Speak honestly. Kids take things quite literally. Veiled speech and the use of terms such as “putting your pet to sleep” can cause more confusion. It is often humorous to me how much kids actually do grasp and that they can understand even the gentlest honesty in no uncertain terms. Over the year preceding Atticus’s impending death, my son would often ask me, “So, are we going to kill Atticus today?” though I had never explained it to him in that way.

2. Share your feelings with your child. What are you feeling? Why are you crying? It is important for your children to see you as human with a wide emotional repertoire. It is also a great way for you to help build your child’s emotional intelligence in a relevant and personally meaningful way.

3. Create a space where your children can explore their emotions, remembering that not everyone copes in the same way. As I discovered with my eldest daughter, they may talk, they may not, but you have at least made the opportunity available and sent the message that it is okay for them to share their feelings.

4. Explore what closure might look like for your family. Include your children in discussions about your pet’s end of life plans. In the months before Atticus’s death, we talked about where we would bury him and what special treasures we would bury with him. The children reminded us that we would need to bury a shoe along with Atticus given that shoes were his favourite toys. We took lots of photographs for a scrapbook that we will eventually make. The children made grave markers and drew pictures to include in the grave. The day before Atticus was put down, we celebrated Atticus’s day. It was a bit of a disappointment because we couldn’t really do with him all the things that he liked, such as take him swimming or go for long walks, but we did treat him to a one-time special breakfast of scrambled eggs, a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and many liver treats!

5. There are some great children’s books that can prepare kids for the death of a pet. Jasper’s Day by Marjorie Blain Parker became a favourite in our home. It tells the story of a family’s last day with their golden retriever in a realistic but gentle way. Books such as this one help children to begin to process what it is that they may have to go through.

6. Remember that rituals are so important for adding meaning to events and substance to life. Have a special memorial or funeral for your pet. On the day that Atticus died, we had a special ceremony and planted a tree in his honour.

Our home is empty without Atticus—we are missing a member of our family. He was an important source of love and provided a chance for us to open our hearts in compassion, respect and understanding. At this point, we may not consider getting another pet but we will never regret the time that we spent with Atticus. The other morning, while in bed together, my four-year-old son said to me, “Let’s lie back and think about Atticus’s life.” His words made me feel blessed and grateful that my children have had the opportunity to make such a special and memorable connection. I hope that they will always think back on Atticus’s life and remember the lessons he taught them about loyalty, patience, playfulness and perseverance.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” at CFSI 107.9 FM or online at web link.