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Coping with the death our dog – as a family

Last week, we lost Dempsey, our almost-12-year-old Golden Retriever, midway through our family vacation. Dempsey started with us on our spring-break road trip—from Vermont to North Carolina, to visit my husband’s parents. He never made it home. With Jon and I each holding one of his paws, petting his head, Dempsey passed peacefully on the floor of a vet’s office in Calabash, after spending a good morning with us on the beach.


As we’ve been sharing the news, nearly everyone has asked: How are the boys? Almost 5 and almost 7, they seem to be fine. But dealing with the death of a pet looks very different when you’re 5, versus when you’re 7, versus when you’re 38 or 39. And, as a parent, it’s your job to support the grieving of everyone in the group.

Confronting the reality that our dog was going to die. And soon.  

We didn’t have much time to process Dempsey’s imminent death. Yes, he had all sorts of benign bumps but he seemed totally fine. That is, until it became clear that he was totally not fine. It was our second day on vacation, and we’d spent the day in DC. When we returned to my uncle’s, we learned that Demps hadn’t moved all day. At first, we blamed arthritis and the previous evening’s “puppy” play; hours later, he still wasn’t eating or drinking and hadn’t gotten up. Something was very wrong.

I put the kids to bed, and Jon took Demps to a nearby emergency vet clinic. He returned two hours later, with the worst possible report: Dempsey had a huge mass on his spleen, which likely had ruptured. And would continue to do so. We had two options: euthanize or a try a high-risk surgery that might buy him three to six months.

After lots of talking (with each other, with the emergency vet, with our vet back home) we decided against the surgery. We’d try to take Dempsey to the beach one last time—if it seemed he could make the six-hour trip. We’d visit him at the clinic and then decide. I worried what this uncertainty would do to the kids. Then we realized: with death, the only certainty is that it’s going to happen. We never know when.

Preparing the kids

That next morning, we explained that Digs was very, very sick and would die very soon—in a couple of days, maybe even that day. Julian, 7,  was visibly upset so I pulled him into the next room. I showed him the X-rays, pointing out how the tumor, larger even than Dempsey’s stomach, was pushing against his organs, bleeding into the inside of his body. This seemed to make it very real for him. He cried and asked when Dempsey was going to die. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.” “I will miss him when he dies,” Jules told me. “Me too.”

Kai, 5, just keep repeating a single question—casually, almost cheerfully:  “Is Dempsey going to die?” Grieving ourselves, Jon and I found it difficult to keep answering that question again and again but we did our best to answer it directly, over and over. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

Embracing the “extra” time

At the clinic, Demps appeared stable enough to chance taking him along with us to Calabash. I was conflicted: what if a severe rupture occurred in the car? On the highway? With the kids? The vet encouraged us to go for it, sending us with pain medications to last a few days and the numbers of a few emergency clinics along the way.

The boys processed the fact that Dempsey was leaving with us in their own ways. “We get extra time with Dempsey,” Kai kept repeating, his tone upbeat. “But we’ll miss him when he dies,” Jules would add somberly every time. Jon and I were just trying to stay present, to soak up every moment. We snapped our last full-family selfie with Digs outside of a McDonald’s somewhere in North Carolina.

Saying our goodbyes

We made it to Jon’s parents, who welcomed us all with relief. Dempsey laid down on the cold floor in the sunroom, refusing food. By the next morning, he could barely could lift his head. Today was the day. We called the vet in Calabash, gave Demps his pain meds and asked the boys—in the next room playing LEGOs—to come in and say goodbye. Still in their pajamas, they approached awkwardly, sat next to him on the floor and embraced him from either side. I snapped a photo. Jules smiled grimly. Kai kissed Demps, then ran back to his LEGOs, shouting, “Good-bye, Demps!” over his shoulder. His nonchalance was unexpected, but I trusted he was handling this in a way that was best for his young brain. Jon and I left for the beach with Digs.

By the time we arrived, Dempsey had perked up considerably. He walked pretty easily, on his leash, along the shoreline. We took a video (which I still haven’t had the courage to watch). We sat on the sand, the three of us, Jon and I looking into Dempsey’s soft brown eyes. After an hour near the water, we left to get him an ice cream at the beach shop. It was 9:30 a.m. Jon came out with two scoops of vanilla in a cup. “Shouldn’t we be eating ice cream with him?” I asked. Jon agreed, went back in and came out with two more cups. We sat on a bench dedicated to someone’s deceased relative on a landscaped island in the middle of parking lot near the pier. It was the first time we finished our ice cream before Dempsey did. We had to spoon feed him. But he ate it.

We drove to the vet. Sat in the parking lot. Decided we weren’t ready. Jon looked up dog-friendly parks on his phone. We GPS-ed to a wooded trail, lined by azaleas just over the border in South Carolina and walked a little more—where we came to meet Coach. He was a bait shop owner who also drove a school bus. A textbook extravert. So friendly. When Demps plopped to the ground on the path, Coach asked how old he was. “Almost twelve.” Coach near-shouted, “That’s ancient in dog years—what a lucky guy!” We’d told him nothing about the significance of our walk. At that point, I was ready. So was Jon. We were meant to meet this Coach guy.

Coping with the loss, family-style

Jon and I adopted Dempsey right after we bought our house—before marriage, before kids. He was our first child, our best buddy/most easy-going roommate and, finally, our beloved elderly relative for whom we just had to make the hardest decision. A compounded loss, to say the least. And when it was all over, we didn’t know quite what to do. Until we did.

Jon and I looked for the nearest bar and ended up at a smoky place with mirrored windows—essentially a bowling alley with no lanes. We each ordered a Corona and a shot of Tennessee whiskey (Dempsey was born there), which arrived in small plastic cups. We slammed them back in honor of the “Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived.” We cried and we laughed. No one gave us a second glance. It was a great place to be at a really shitty time.

Back at home, with the boys and colored pencils, we started a list of all of the reasons Dempsey was so great, a la The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (by Judith Viorst). I’ve read this book—about a young boy who recounts all the good things about his cat after it dies—many times to my kids because I love how it honors the the range of beliefs people have about death. Our family spans the spectrum. My in-laws shared a poem with the boys called Rainbow Bridge (a beautiful place “just this side of Heaven” where people meet up with their deceased pets when they die). I wouldn’t have thought to share this story but it seemed to be a great source of comfort to Kai. So we went with it.

Honoring the memories

Kai’s still a bit fixated on Rainbow Bridge. Yesterday, when I showed him a photo I’d taken at his brother’s baseball game, he brought it up again. “That’s a good picture, Mom. Don’t forget to show it to Dempsey when you die. Are you excited to be on Rainbow Bridge?” What I wanted to say was this: Do you even KNOW what Rainbow Bridge means? But of course he doesn’t—he’s looking to us to help him make sense of this all. And so I simply said, “It sounds like a really nice place” and decided it was time to pull out the Barney book again.

Last week, Julian told me not to think about Dempsey because “you shouldn’t think about sad things.” After we talked about keeping the happy memories, he requested a party to celebrate Dempsey’s life. “With cupcakes that look like Dempsey.” I think we’ll shoot for August 5, his would-be birthday.

As for me, I keep expecting to hear Dempsey’s nails against the wood floor, to meet his greeting at the door. I’m working through a bit of guilt—for not taking him on daily walks after the kids were born, for taking his ever-loving presence for granted. Still, I’m mostly grateful for how it all went down last week: Demps made it to the ocean, he experienced minimal pain. We got to say goodbye, surrounded by the support of our families. I’m pretty sure that all of this is hitting Jon a bit harder: Demps was his bud, often the only sane being in a home often exploding with emotions.

“You always knew what you were getting with Demps,” Jon had told me at the dive bar in South Carolina. So true: Dempsey was always happy to see you, ready to lift you up at the end of a shitty day. As for the rest of us in this family—well, sometimes it feels like we’re just a bunch of cohabiting humans tumbling over each other’s struggles. But we can make that better.

“I promise I’ll always say hi every time you walk in the door,” I’d told Jon, laughing. And crying. And meaning it.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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