There are many traditions that my late mother practiced that I have carried into my own family, like the way she always gave me a card on Valentine’s Day and how she celebrated Christmas for a month, long before anyone else. But there are also many things she did that I’ve happily left behind. Like, reusing our family “puke bowl” for mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner — or, frankly, even having a family puke bowl at all.
Something else I resolved to do differently was how I would handle a pet dying. My mom’s approach to putting a dog down was to immediately replace it with another dog, often on the same day. She would try to mask our (her?) grief with joy and elation. And I hate to admit this, but it worked. It was a lot harder to focus on the ache of the missing dog with a puppy chewing on your toes.
When I had to put a dog down in early adulthood and there was no puppy or new pet to greet me after that final, bleak vet visit, I got to experience the full range of emotions that comes alongside such significant loss. Our pets are our families, after all. I cried, I laughed, I got angry, and finally, I felt at peace. It showed me how necessary each stage of grief was and how healing it could be to allow a mourning period and do some kind of a ceremony, just as you would for any other relative.
I swore to myself that I would do things differently when I had children of my own, but I didn’t expect having to have that talk when my son was two and a half. Nor did I expect to have to do it before our dog was even sick. And, as it turns out, I was so eager to get this talk right that I completely botched it.
One morning, on the way to school, my son asked about our dog, Tucker dying. His exact words were, “When Tucker dies…?” I can’t remember the rest of the question because I stopped breathing briefly.
Admittedly, I was confused why he was bringing it up right then. Our dog was very much alive. He wasn’t even sick. No one was talking about dying or death in our household. Sure, we’d seen a dead frog at the pet store when my son was one, but that didn’t really feel like the opportunity to teach about life and death, if you know what I mean.
I took a deep breath and decided this was it. This was the perfect time. He was a captive and curious audience and I had been preparing myself for years on how I would be matter of fact and relaxed when this time came.
I explained softly that everyone dies; that it is the natural cycle of life. I decided to spare him the detail that “everyone” included his mom and dad and pivoted the conversation to brainstorming different ways people honor those they have lost. I shared the example of a colleague who got a tattoo of his dog’s paw on his forearm to memorialize his fallen friend. My toddler said he definitely wanted a Tucker tattoo, too.
We pulled up to his school and sat in the car reviewing our hypothetical plan for when our dog hypothetically dies: the tattoo, scattering the ashes in the ocean, keeping the collar. I was surprised by how well he had taken the news, but when he got fixated on asking about Tucker going into the ocean, I realized to my horror that he hadn’t been thinking about death that morning, at all.
He had been asking about our dog diving.
Our dog loved the ocean and in his younger years would swim in the Pacific and dive into the waves. Though my son had never seen him swim in real life, he had seen videos and I guess, in true toddler-steel-trap-memory form he had remembered.
My son never said, “When Tucker dies…” He said, “When Tucker dives…”
Welp, now our toddler knows all about death and diving.
Sarah Ezrin is the author of The Yoga of Parenting. She is a world-renowned yoga educator, content creator, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sarah loves guiding people along their wellness and parenthood journeys. Her words, classes, and social media are supportive, healing spaces where people can feel seen and heard. For more information on Sarah please connect with her on Instagram and TikTok.