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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.

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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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There are certain moments of parenthood that stay with us forever. The ones that feel a little extra special than the rest. The ones that we always remember, even as time moves forward.

The first day of school will always be one of the most powerful of these experiences.

I love thinking back to my own excitement going through it as a child—the smell of the changing seasons, how excited I was about the new trendy outfit I picked out. And now, I get the joy of watching my children go through the same right of passage.

Keep the memory of this time close with these 10 pictures that you must take on the first day of school so you can remember it forever, mama:

1. Getting on the school bus.

Is there anything more iconic than a school bus when it comes to the first day of school? If your little one is taking the bus, snap a photo of them posed in front of the school bus, walking onto it for the first time, or waving at you through the window as they head off to new adventure.

2. Their feet (and new shoes!)

Getting a new pair of shoes is the quintessential task to prepare for a new school year. These are the shoes that will support them as they learn, play and thrive. Capture the sentimental power of this milestone by taking photos of their shoes. You can get a closeup of your child's feet, or even show them standing next to their previous years of first-day-of-school shoes to show just how much they've grown. If you have multiple children, don't forget to get group shoe photos as well!

3. Posing with their backpack.

Backpacks are a matter of pride for kids so be sure to commemorate the one your child has chosen for the year. Want to get creative? Snap a picture of the backpack leaning against the front door, and then on your child's back as they head out the door.

4. Standing next to a tree or your front door.

Find a place where you can consistently take a photo year after year—a tree, your front door, the school signage—and showcase how much your child is growing by documenting the change each September.

5. Holding a 'first day of school' sign.

Add words to your photo by having your child pose with or next to a sign. Whether it's a creative DIY masterpiece or a simple printout you find online that details their favorites from that year, the beautiful sentiment will be remembered for a lifetime.

6. With their graduating class shirt.

When your child starts school, get a custom-designed shirt with the year your child will graduate high school, or design one yourself with fabric paint (in an 18-year-old size). Have them wear the shirt each year so you can watch them grow into it—and themselves!

Pro tip: Choose a simple color scheme and design that would be easy to recreate if necessary—if your child ends up skipping or repeating a year of school and their graduation date shifts, you can have a new shirt made that can be easily swapped for the original.

7. Post with sidewalk chalk.

Sidewalk chalk never goes out of style and has such a nostalgic quality to it. Let your child draw or write something that represents the start of school, like the date or their teacher, and then have them pose next to (or on top of) their work.

8. In their classroom.

From first letters learned to complicated math concepts mastered, your child's classroom is where the real magic of school happens. Take a few pictures of the space where they'll be spending their time. They will love remembering what everything looked like on the first day, from the decorations on the wall to your child's cubby, locker or desk.

9. With their teacher.

If classrooms are where the magic happens, teachers are the magicians. We wish we remembered every single teach we had, but the truth is that over time, memories fade. Be sure to snap a photo of your child posing with their teacher on the first day of school.

10. With you!

We spend so much time thinking about our children's experience on the first day of school, we forget about the people who have done so much to get them there—us! This is a really big day for you too, mama, so get in that photo! You and your child will treasure it forever.

This article is sponsored by Rack Room Shoes. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Is it too soon? I ask myself as you toddle in and chat excitedly about the baby in mommy's belly. "Where is she?" you ask. "But I don't see her," you insist when I tell you she's in there.

Will you miss our special time as a trio? I wonder, as we snuggle on your rug at night, you, Daddy and me, under a blanket too small to cover us all. But you don't realize, pulling it up over us anyway, feet popping out, giggling all the while.

Were we selfish? I worry as I rush to comfort you during the night when a fever spikes and you call out our names. "Mama!" "Daddy!" And we're both there in a minute.

How can I possibly love another child as much as I love you? I question myself, as you run into my waiting hug and beg for just a million more.

But I tell myself that we'll learn these new steps together in stride, just as we did when you found your way into the world and became all of mine. Because it was you, my sweet boy, who taught me how to be a mama.

It was you who, in those first weeks, rested your head contently on my chest, just when I thought nursing might be too hard to handle. And it was you who flashed your first smile as the washer broke, amid mounds of spit-up stained laundry.

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You were the one who settled my breathing, as it quickened and tightened during my first panic attack. And it was rocking you at night that saved me when my maternity leave came to an end.

When you brought your very first stomach virus home and we all got sick at the same time, it was the sound of your first laugh that saved us during the eleventh hour, when we were questioning what made us think we were strong enough to care for a family.

We learned together how to navigate pediatrician visits and shots, what rocks and rhythms made nighttime smoother, how to introduce foods and when to wean. After six months, it was you who gave me the signal it was okay to stop nursing. When endless pumping sessions at work had me in tears, you assured me you'd love me just as much if I picked up a bottle of formula, gulping it down with a smile, your hands resting on mine.

When I worried at work each day that you were bonding more with your daycare teachers in those long hours than we ever could at home, you shared your first word, reminding me how special our bond is in that sweet, jumbled "mama."

We did it all, together.

And even now, as I worry about transitioning you into a big boy bed, you excitedly accept the challenge and graciously tell us we can give your crib to your new baby sister–just not your blanket.

At daycare, you rock the baby dolls, and you tell everyone you pass what your baby sister's name will be. You ask to read about Daniel Tiger and Baby Margaret, making sure I know how to navigate what's on your horizon.

Because, baby boy, you've always been quicker to adapt than me. Sometimes I think it's you who is teaching us.

You see, baby boy, it was your encouragement and love all along that guided me into motherhood. And it was your hugs and kisses and "good job mama's" that told me I could do this again.

Life will change as our family grows, but we'll keep learning together.

It'll be you who marches into that Kindergarten class, head held high as you proudly wear the backpack you picked out yourself, reminding us that time stops for no one.

It'll be you who introduces us to practices and clubs, field trips and permission slips–I'm sorry in advance for the ones I'll forget to sign!

It'll be you who turns my grip white, as you tuck your permit into the glovebox and pull onto the street for the first time.

It'll be you we wait up for first, worried that you haven't called. And it'll be you who heads off to college, leaving the house that seems too small feeling much too big.

But before your baby sister comes, and time continues to carry us in its unforgiving pace, I'll soak up every undivided second of attention I can give you. I'll snuggle you close and savor our chats. And we'll follow each other's leads, continuing to figure out this whole thing called life together.

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A recent trip to the movie theater had me brimming with excitement to reunite with Woody, Buzz, and the crew of Andy's (er, Bonnie's?) toys in the Toy Story franchise's new installment. Sure enough, my family laughed at the adventures of the cast, but it was a newcomer to the gang that really stole the show: a plastic spork named Forky.

While his reluctance to accept his place was charming and sweet, Bonnie's creation of Forky, and her subsequent attachment to him as her new favorite toy, points at a bigger picture—what constitutes a toy? Likewise, what does a child really need to be entertained?

The film's inclusion of such a common, utilitarian object as a chosen plaything serves as a reminder that children's imaginations are a powerful thing, and—when left to their own devices—kids are quite capable of having fun with far less than our society typically deems necessary.

Forky is a throwback to a time when less was more, and when families' homes weren't miniature toy stores.

I remember recently being spellbound as I watched my daughter engrossed in play with a handful of rocks. Each pebble had its role—mommy rock, daddy rock, baby rock, etc—and she carried on with a captivating scene encompassing equal parts comedy and tragedy. It was a rock family saga, and frankly, I was mesmerized.

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Despite a house full of flashy, modern, (and sometimes expensive) toys, I've found that some of the most creative play comes from the most unexpected "things" that most adults would consider non-toys. Kids have a unique way of looking at things, and often the items they gravitate toward as their preferred toy may leave parents not only scratching their heads, but also howling in laughter.

Kitchen accessories seem to be a favorite for many little ones, as I remember my own niece insisting on carrying a serving spoon everywhere with her. These inanimate objects function as the perfect plaything for children, as their minds are free to create whatever story or fantasy they desire. The make-believe is endless.

Other favorites for my kiddos include shoelaces, ropes, or yarn, which have infinite aliases—stuffed animal leashes and zip-lines being their go-tos. And who can forget the magic of cardboard boxes and of course bubble wrap. We're talking hours of fun and play.

After watching the film, I looked around my house at the abundant number of toys that my own children possess. Then I turned around and watched as they chose to stack Tupperware containers and throw foam koozies at them in a competitive game of kitchen bowling.

So yeah, we're all probably a little guilty of overindulgence with it comes to our kids. To be honest, it's fun to watch their eyes light up upon receiving a new toy at their birthday or other holiday. And I'm not arguing that those practices need to change completely. Rather, let's not forget the power of minimalism and its place in our lives. Let's encourage resourcefulness and creativity.

Behind the fun and nostalgia of the Toy Story series are important lessons and messages. In today's culture where more is more, Forky is a reminder that parents don't necessarily have to break the bank in purchasing toys for the little ones in our lives. In many cases, a "spork" will do.

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School will be here before we know it, mamas. Which means it's time to take a look in your kid's closet, pull out all those leggings and jeans with holes in the knees and replace them with durable, super cute options... today! Why? Because Prime Day, that's why!

We've been lucky enough to try out Amazon's Spotted Zebra and Look by Crewcuts, and trust us when we say these clothes are quality with a capital "Q." And at these prices, you just might want to stock up on multiple seasons' worth!

From sneakers and sweatshirts to shorts and hoodies, these are the cutest staples at the best prices that you want to take advantage of today!

Amazon Essentials Girls' Long-Sleeve Elastic Waist T-Shirt Dress

Amazon Essentials Dress

Available in seven colorways and sizes 2T to XXL, this dress is the perfect transition piece from summer to fall...just add leggings and she can rock it all winter long, too.

Price: $10.50 (regularly $15.00)

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Spotted Zebra Girls' Toddler & Kids 4-Pack Leggings

Spotted Zebra Legging

Mamas, listen up: We've tried out leggings from many retailers and Spotted Zebra's are among the best. And they come in 18 different patterns/sets.

Price: $10 (regularly $20)

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LOOK by crewcuts Boys' 2-Pack Knit Pull on Shorts

Look Crewcuts Knit Shorts

Cozy shorts for little boys to run around in are imperative for the school year and these ones fit the bill perfectly.

Price: $16.80 (regularly $24)

SHOP

Spotted Zebra Kids' 12-Pack Low-Cut Socks

Spotted Zebra Socks

Mamas, if you've got school-age children, then you've also probably got a bin full of random socks. At a buck a pair, this set is well worth it.

Price: $12.60 (regularly $18.00)

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Crocs Kids Bayaband Clog

Crocs Bayaband Clog

No mom has ever regretted buying Crocs for her kids! The easiest shoe to slip on and off chubby feet, Crocs' big rubber toes make them for great scootering and biking.

Price: $18.99 (regularly $34)

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Simple Joys by Carter's Boys' 2-Pack Flat Front Shorts

Carters Shorts

For the days when you want him to look a bit crisper, this two-pack of flat-front chino-esque shorts will do nicely.

Price: $16.75 (regularly $23.99)

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Spotted Zebra Boys' 2-Pack Light-Weight Hooded Long-Sleeve T-Shirts

spotted zebra

You can never have too many lightweight long-sleeve shirts for your kids, and we love the hoods and patterns/colors on these.

Price: $15.40 (regularly $22.50)

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PUMA Kids' St Runner Velcro Sneaker

Puma Velcro Sneaker

Available in 12 colors for girls and boys, these sneakers are perfect for pre-K and young elementary school kids who haven't quite learned how to tie their own laces yet.

Price: $17.49 (regularly $40)

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LOOK by crewcuts Girls' Lightweight Cat-ear Hoodie

Look Crewcuts Cat Hoodie

This hoodie is going to be their new fave when the school year rolls around.

Price: $18.20 (regularly $26)

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Spotted Zebra Girls' Toddler & Kids 2-Pack Knit Sleeveless Tiered Dresses

Spotted Zebra Dress

Even if your girl is going through a no-dresses phase, we're pretty sure she'll love this for two reasons. One, it's SO twirly, whirly, perfect for spinning around (and around and around). And two, she's going to love the bright blocked colors.

Price: $16.80 (regularly $26.80)

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Starter Boys' Pullover Logo Hoodie

starter hoodie

Perfect for throwing on after a baseball game or on the walk to school when the temps start dipping again.

Price: $13.94 (regularly $19.99)

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UOVO Boys Running Shoes

Uovo Boys Running Shoe

UOVO's running shoes are about as durable as they come thanks to rubberized finishes that mean you can wipe stains (grass! mud!) right off. Also available in orange at this price.

Price: $23.64 (regularly $42.99)

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Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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[Editor's note: This article describes one parent's experience with bed-sharing. To learn more about the American Academy of Pediatrics safe sleep recommendations please visit the AAP.]

Raise your hand if you've ever found yourself asleep with your child next to you in bed. (🙋🏽♀️)While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room-sharing, they discourage bed-sharing, particularly in the first four months of a baby's life, due to safety concerns.

But the reality is that many parents fall asleep with their babies next to them in bed. Whether it's because your baby won't sleep without those cuddles, because you've drifted off while nursing, because you didn't have the heart to put a sick baby in their crib, or because your doctor has given you the okay to snooze alongside your babe, bed-sharing is very much a thing.

And Tia Mowry is getting real about her experience with it.

When asked about her most "non-traditional" parenting move, Tia shared that she's a big-time bed-sharer. "My 1-year-old [daughter, Cairo] is still in my bed," the actress said during an interview with PEOPLE. "Ever since she was born she was always in our bed." But this isn't her first experience with co-sleeping: Tia also shared that she slept with her son until he was 4 years old.

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Tia is hardly alone when it comes to sleeping with her kids. A 2016 study found that only about 44% of survey responders never slept with their babies in bed with them—and that those who slept with their babies were more likely to keep breastfeeding for the recommended six months. Fellow celeb Kourtney Kardashian is a co-sleeper, and many mamas find that while they didn't plan to co-sleep, it is what works for them. That's why there are even special co-sleeping beds big enough for parents and kids.

But as popular as co-sleeping is, it can still be seen as controversial. Even Tia's own mom isn't on board with the Sister Sister star's decision to bed-share with her kids. "[My mom is] like, 'You need to do the cry-out method. Put your baby in the crib. And I'm like, 'No!' I don't want my baby to have any sign of stress whatsoever," Tia explains.

Whichever side of the line you fall on, one thing is clear: Sometimes parents need to do things they never expected to do in the name of more sleep. When it comes to parenting, there's only one absolute: You have to do what keeps your family safe, healthy and happy. And while we'd urge all mamas to familiarize themselves with child safety guidelines, ultimately we all have to make the choices that are best for our families.

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