Kari Wagner-Peck had trouble explaining the death of their beloved dog to her son, until she realized her boy had a lot to teach her, too.
A month ago, my husband and I had to make the painful decision to have our much loved 15 year old German Shepherd, Walt, put to sleep. Walt was the first living being we raised together as a couple. He was our dog. After our son arrived on the scene we both lost Walt to Thorin. It was Thorin he followed from room to room. It was Thorin he slept with, woke with and who he worshiped.
As Walt began to fail the vet told us: “He’s a freak of nature. I’ve never had such an old Shepherd as a patient.” I told her: “I think he can’t leave his boy.”
The steady decline started five months before. The vet said it was a matter of time. It was then I started to prepare Thorin, who is eight. Our son has Down syndrome which can cause processing delays. I knew he could understand me but how does any child understand death? I wasn’t sure how he would parse the information. Also he has speech apraxia meaning he has fully formed thoughts but has difficulty formulating the words. Often he picks the most prominent aspect of the thought to express.
“His back?” he asked
“Yes. It is serious. He could die. It is that serious. You know death?”
“Like Groot?” he asked
We had just seen the film Guardians of the Galaxy. Groot is the tree-like character who dies but is then re-born from clippings.
“Not like Groot.”
My thought was to tread lightly. I didn’t need to explain all of death in one fell swoop. We still had time.
My son took note of the changes with Walt: he stumbled and fell. Our kitchen floors were covered in rugs taped down to minimize falling. Thorin made accommodations for his friend’s fragility. The forts he built for the two of them now had a cushy bed for Walt. He understood Walt could no longer jump up on his bed, needing to sleep on the floor instead.
A week before our decision Walt went down on a walk and refused to be carried, instead crawling home. Once home Thorin sat and petted Walt’s head telling him over and over: “Okay, Walty, Okay.”
I started preparing Thorin for the death of his friend. The day it happened I sat with Thorin and Walt. While we both held Walt. I explained to Thorin he would go to Aunt Betty’s. The vet would come while he was gone and help Walt die.
“No” he said.
“I don’t want it either. No one does” I said crying.
“Stop. Stop. Stop.” His eyes were dry.
“Walty dead” he said finally.
“I’m so sorry.”
When he left to go he screamed at Walt and tried to swat at him.
I told Thorin: “It’s Okay to be mad at Walt for dying. He can take it. If you feel bad later know he understood it is because you love him so much.”
For days after my husband and I would break down in tears. Thorin was stoic. When asked how he felt he would scream: “Happy!”
Thorin asked where Walt was.
We are not a religious family. That said we are spiritual. I believe we have souls.
“He is in heaven.” Explaining I made a rudimentary drawing complete with ascending souls.
My son had a blank stare on his face. I was in over my head.
The next day at breakfast I saw he was wearing his backpack.
“What’s that for?”
“For Asgard” he explained.
“You’re going to Asgard?” I asked
“Yes. To see Walty.” I realized I must have made heaven sound a lot like Thor’s birthplace.
“Honey, Walt’s not in Asgard.”
“Yes. I go now,” he was adamant.
I realized most people were uncomfortable addressing Walt’s death with Thorin. I didn’t know if I should attribute it to his Down syndrome or his age or even the evasiveness death seems to bring. His best friend had died and not much was said.
He was not deterred by the oversight. In a multitude of settings he would suddenly announce: “Walt dead.”
Most people would then offer condolences. Some would offer stories about pets they had lost. He had zero tolerance for that. This was about Walt not someone else’s friend. In the middle of one person’s story he simply got up and left the room.
Frequently Thorin would come to me: “Walt alive. Walt dead now.”
“Yes. I am so sorry. Do you want to talk?”
Thorin woke me in the middle of the night: “Wake up! Walt alive!”
I was delighted for him: “What did he do?”
“He sleep on bed. He eat. We walk.”
“That sounds nice. Are you sad?”
“No happy.” He sounded like he meant it.
Last summer Thorin was given a three-foot-high stuffed animal that is a nearly perfect mini replica of Walt that he named ‘Walt Two’. A few nights ago our son pulled one of Walt’s dog blankets out and made a bed for Walt Two in the same spot on the floor where his friend slept.
In the morning he shared he had another dream with Walt in it. He said: “Walt happy!”
“I’m sure he is, Thorin” and I meant it.
My son started dancing around the room singing: “Walty alive at night in our dreams!”
I was struck he included “at, “in” and “our” — all connecting words. He pulled out all the stops composing that for his beloved friend.
Photos courtesy of the author