My family went through a difficult and sad experience for all of us in mid-December. We finally had to put to rest our nineteen year old cat Simba who’s been sick for the last year or so.

I would ask you to please bear with me as you read through this article as it is an exercise in expressing my emotions and sharing a very personal story from my life.

This post will share the story of the last few months with our cat from my personal perspective. It will explore how as parents we managed this life event with our kids and more specifically it will explore some key moments I experienced with my son.

Preparing our kids to mourn their pet

With a nineteen year old cat, even though we all knew it was just a matter of time before the inevitable happened, we struggled a lot as parents over what was the best way of preparing our kids for it.

Our children are twelve and nine years old so they know about life and death because we lost family members over their lifetime but they never lost anyone as close to them as the cat.

The biggest struggle with “preparing your kids” for such a life event is what does this mean exactly. It can mean different things to different people, as parents, I think our version of it was letting them know we were reaching a point where this could happen soon. We were also very transparent with them about what was happening when we came back from our visits to the vet.

Managing the process of death

One key things I learned as a parent over the last few months is that there seems to be a process associated with death that you need to go through and maybe even manage. Although we are never quite prepared for such a life event, there are some phases we seemingly need to go through to help us accept death when it becomes inevitable.

I initially saw this process when my grandmother passed away after being in the hospital for many months. I remember the struggle of some of my aunts and uncles with letting her go.

Over the last year, even before we knew Simba was ill, we had family conversations around the fact the cat was getting really old and would not be with us forever. Without being over dramatic about it, we spoke about how we should cherish the time we had left together.

Towards the end of the summer, we brought Simba for a checkup and learned he had some health issues that needed taking care of. When we got back home, we spoke about it with the kids and did what we needed to do to try to help the cat.

In the fall, in one of our last visits, we could see in the way the vet was talking to us there was not much else we could do aside from keeping the cat comfortable. It was pretty much just a matter of time now and we spoke about that too as a family.

As part of managing this process of death with our children, one of the shifts I could see was in our language. Towards the end, to make things easier I guess, we spoke more and more about necessity to make the best decision for Simba as well.

The greatest thing you did out of love?

My son Jonathan is twelve years old, he is truly an amazing person. What I admire the most of my son is how loving, caring and human he can be.

In the last few months, I saw him pour so much of his love into his relationship with the cat and it was beautiful to see. Simba was always by his side, either following him around, playing or resting on the couch next to him.

We knew that it would be very difficult for him when the cat passed away. He is an introvert and does not speak much about his emotions and we were afraid he would close up and not talk to us about it.

Back in November, I was one of the facilitators at an event with kids in a catechism course preparing for their Confirmation ceremony. In one of the exercises, we asked the participants a bunch of questions and had them share their answers as a group.

The kids (some of them teenagers) were a bit embarrassed sharing their answers in a group setting and on the way home, I spoke about that with my son. He shared with me that he held back answering out loud the question “What is the greatest things you have done out of love?” but the answer he wrote down was how he was taking care of Simba so much.

His answer completely floored me in the moment, I was truly proud of him. In the group setting, many kids answered superficial things but his answer right in that moment was truly spot on.

Showing your kids your emotions

In December, we came downstairs one Monday morning and saw Simba lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs and he seemed in very bad shape. We had signs over the weekend this was coming and once again had a discussion with the kids but this was much more sudden than any of us expected.

That morning, my son was too upset to go to school so I let him stay home with me and he took care of Simba all day while I worked and kept an eye on them. We decided that morning that we needed to do what was best for Simba and take him to the animal hospital and let him go. We decided to take care of this in the evening when my wife came back from work.

For me personally, it all became real once I called the animal hospital to make the appointment. After the call, I had this great rush of emotions and started crying. As I crossed paths with my son, I grabbed him and gave him a big hug.

He looked at me astounded that daddy was crying like this. He laughed out of discomfort because he did not know what to do. So we spoke about it together and I shared with him father’s have emotions too!

As a parent, I also realized in the moment though just how much I shielded him from my emotions over the years. It is not that I never cried before, especially in the last four or five years, I just made a point of not doing that around him.

Talking your kids through their pain

Early in the evening, we all said our goodbyes and my wife and I brought the cat to the animal hospital to do what we needed to do.

I had some calls scheduled later in the evening and my son watched television with my wife to get his mind of what happened during the day. When I got out of my calls, I saw him on the couch and brought him up to bed. We spoke a bit and I quickly realized he was not quite ready to sleep…

I brought him to our room and spent the most difficult hour I have spent up to now with him as a parent. It was not easy seeing my son like this angry at life, sad, crying and in emotional pain and all I could do was be present, listen and cry along with him.

In that moment, as a parent, I honestly felt really guilty for making the decision we made and seeing what our decision created for him. It was the right thing to do but it was difficult to just be there, listen and try to ease his pain by offering different perspectives and different ways to look at the situation.

Expressing the cost of love

Throughout the discussion with Jonathan, one of the main things that kept coming to my mind was the importance of talking to him about the cost of truly loving someone.

He could have made the choice to distance himself from Simba to make things easier as we all knew death was approaching but the amazing thing is that instead, he decided to love his cat with all his heart.

I told him that when you love with all your heart, it hurts all that much more when you lose the person you love. But the beautiful thing is that despite the pain you feel now, you still got to experience what it is to love. If you cannot love, how can you truly live?

In one of the most touching parts of the discussion for me, he was telling how he would do anything right now just to spend some time with Simba again. I offered him the perspective that maybe the reason this did not happen sooner was because of all the love he gave the cat over the last few months.

As I was writing the previous paragraph, I had a thought for my father who passed away when I was twenty years old.

Conclusion

The beautiful thing here was that we were initially worried Jonathan would close himself up as he is more of an introvert but he took the opportunity to open up and share.

I remember when I was young and I got emotional about things, my father did not always know how to create that space for me. I was thankful that my coaching training allowed me to create that space for my son.

What all this made me realize is that parents are leaders too but just in a different context than work. We need to show the same qualities as leaders if we want our kids to trust us and follow us along a journey that is not necessarily always easy.

In our case, being very transparent with the kids about what was happening created some challenging moments but I feel it also helped us bond as a family. Between me and my son, it also created a different space of conversation and trust between us.

Before posting this article, I showed it to Jonathan and got his agreement to put this online. Just so you know, when I initially told him about writing this, he laughed and said: “Only you can turn such a thing into a leadership article!”.

About the author

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Steffan Surdek

I am a leadership development coach, corporate trainer, professional speaker and author. I believe in contributing to a greater cause, making a difference and adding value. Feel free to reach out, I would love to hear about the leadership challenges in your organization!

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