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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.

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When you become a parent for the first time, there is an undeniably steep learning curve. Add to that the struggle of sorting through fact and fiction when it comes to advice and—whew—it's enough to make you more tired than you already are with that newborn in the house.

Just like those childhood games of telephone when one statement would get twisted by the time it was told a dozen times, there are many parenting misconceptions that still tend to get traction. This is especially true with myths about bottle-feeding—something that the majority of parents will do during their baby's infancy, either exclusively or occasionally.

Here's what you really need to know about bottle-feeding facts versus fiction.

1. Myth: Babies are fine taking any bottle

Not all bottles are created equally. Many parents experience anxiety when it seems their infant rejects all bottles, which is especially nerve wracking if a breastfeeding mom is preparing to return to work. However, it's often a matter of giving the baby some time to warm up to the new feeding method, says Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician, infant feeding specialist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of California San Francisco graduate School of Nursing.

"For mothers returning to work, if you're breastfeeding but trying to transition to bottle[s], try to give yourself a two- to four-week trial window to experiment with bottle feeding," says Ferraro.

2. Myth: You either use breast milk or formula

So often, the question of whether a parent is using formula or breastfeeding is presented exclusively as one or the other. In reality, many babies are combo-fed—meaning they have formula sometimes, breast milk other times.

The advantage with mixed feeding is the babies still get the benefits of breast milk while parents can ensure the overall nutritional and caloric needs are met through formula, says Ferraro.

3. Myth: Cleaning bottles is a lot of work

For parents looking for simplification in their lives (meaning, all of us), cleaning bottles day after day can sound daunting. But, really, it doesn't require much more effort than you are already used to doing with the dishes each night: With bottles that are safe for the top rack of the dishwasher, cleaning them is as easy as letting the machine work for you.

For added confidence in the sanitization, Dr. Brown's offers an incredibly helpful microwavable steam sterilizer that effectively kills all household bacteria on up to four bottles at a time. (Not to mention it can also be used on pacifiers, sippy cups and more.)

4. Myth: Bottle-feeding causes colic

One of the leading theories on what causes colic is indigestion, which can be caused by baby getting air bubbles while bottle feeding. However, Dr. Brown's bottles are the only bottles in the market that are actually clinically proven to reduce colic thanks to an ingenious internal vent system that eliminates negative pressure and air bubbles.

5. Myth: Bottles are all you can use for the first year

By the time your baby is six months old (way to go!), they may be ready to begin using a sippy cup. Explains Ferraro, "Even though they don't need water or additional liquids at this point, it is a feeding milestone that helps promote independent eating and even speech development."

With a complete line of products to see you from newborn feeding to solo sippy cups, Dr. Brown's does its part to make these new transitions less daunting. And, for new parents, that truly is priceless.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Jessica Simpson celebrated her baby shower this weekend (after getting a cupping treatment for her very swollen pregnancy feet) and her theme and IG captions have fans thinking this was not just a shower, but a baby name announcement as well.

Simpson (who is expecting her third child with former NFL player Eric Johnson) captioned two photos of her shower as "💚 Birdie's Nest 💚". The photographs show Simpson and her family standing under a neon sign spelling out the same thing.

While Simpson didn't explicitly state that she was naming her child Birdie, the numerous references to the name in her shower photos and IG stories have the internet convinced that she's picking the same name Busy Philips chose for her now 10-year-old daughter.

The name Birdie isn't in the top 1000 baby names according to the Social Security Administration, but It has been seeing a resurgence in recent years, according to name nerds and trend watchers.

"Birdie feels like a sassy but sweet, down-to-earth yet unusual name," Pamela Redmond Satran of Nameberry told Town and Country back in 2017. "It's also just old enough to be right on time."

Simpson's older kids are called Maxwell and Ace, which both have a vintage feel, so if Birdie really is her choice, the three old-school names make a nice sibling set.

Whether Birdie is the official name or just a cute nickname Simpson is playing around with, we get the appeal and bet she can't wait for her little one to arrive (and her feet to go back to normal!)

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Mamas, if you hire a cleaning service to tackle the toddler fingerprints on your windows, or shop at the neighborhood grocery store even when the deals are better across town, don't feel guilty. A new study by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School shows money buys happiness if it's used to give you more time. And that, in turn could be better for the whole family.

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As if we needed another reason to shop at Target, our favorite store is offering some great deals for mamas who need products for baby. Mom life can be expensive and we love any chance at saving a few bucks. If you need to stock up on baby care items, like diapers and wipes, now is the time.

Right now, if you spend $100 on select diapers, wipes, formula, you'll get a $20 gift card with pickup or Target Restock. Other purchases will get you $5 gift cards during this promotion:

  • $20 gift card when you spend $100 or more on select diapers, wipes, formula, and food items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock
  • $5 gift card when you buy 3 select beauty care items
  • $5 gift card when you buy 2 select household essentials items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock
  • $5 gift card when you buy 2 select Iams, Pedigree, Crave & Nutro dog and cat food or Fresh Step cat litter items using in store Order Pickup
  • $5 gift card when you buy 3 select feminine care items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock

All of these promotions will only run through 11:59 pm PT on Saturday, January 19, 2019 so make sure to stock up before they're gone!

Because the deals only apply to select products and certain colors, just be sure to read the fine print before checking out.

Target's website notes the "offer is valid using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock when available".

The gift cards will be delivered after you have picked up your order or your Target Restock order has shipped.

We won't tell anyone if you use those gift cards exclusively for yourself. 😉 So, get to shopping, mama!

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