Having pets is an eye-opener for children living in comfortable suburbia. Pets are great teachers for the subjects of life, love, and loss.

As well as the two dogs, our four guinea pigs (two male and two female) were part of our family life. The kids –  especially the three boys – were very fond of our “environmentally friendly lawn mowers” (as their sister called them). They were also great therapy animals, helping to calm distressed or anxious children and providing quiet comfort and black jelly beans during dark times.

Sadly, Harry died last summer. He was one of the original piggies, and his loss occasioned much grief for the boys. We were away at the time, and they’d been unable to say “Good-bye”. So when I had to take Brownie to the vet recently after he had somehow injured his legs (or so I thought), I made sure that the two oldest boys said “Goodbye” – just in case.

Train Wombat, with an admirable degree of self-awareness and (perhaps) prescience, declined to come to the vet with me. He commented that he found going to the vet’s “hard”. Littlest Wombat, however, being the David Attenborough of the family, wanted to come to look after Brownie.

In retrospect, perhaps that was not the best decision.

At the vet

The vet gently held our little fellow and tested the nerve responses in his legs. Nothing. Then he noticed that Brownie’s fur was stained and dirty with urine. Not only had he lost the use of his legs, but also his bowels. It suddenly hit me – he hadn’t injured his legs, but his back. The poor little chap was paralysed.

When going out to feed the guinea pigs the previous evening, Train Wombat had found Brownie stuck under the wire run surrounding his cage. (We kept the boys and girls in separate runs. Before we realised that we had both boys and girls, we had unexpectedly ended up with 10 guinea pigs!) The boys, however, kept determinedly trying to escape to see the girls. Ahh – the call of nature… In this case, sadly, it was to prove fatal.

The vet was very caring, and set out the options, as much for Littlest Wombat’s benefit as for me. Little could be done – euthanasia was really the only option. A spinal injury is hard enough to manage in humans, let alone guinea pigs. The vet explained to Littlest Wombat that the kindest thing to do was to put him to sleep. In a couple of days, he explained to my distraught son, Brownie would get really sick because he would get infected and his fur would become sore and itchy. He couldn’t move properly, he couldn’t control his bowels. “You wouldn’t want him to suffer, would you?” he asked. “And he can’t really use a wheelchair.”

This was too much for Littlest Wombat. Suddenly overwhelmed with grief and anger, he shouted at me.

“You tell me that you should never give up!” he yelled accusingly. “You say it’s important to try – and you’re not even trying! You’re just a murderer!” He sobbed uncontrollably.

Explanations were useless. Nothing either the vet or I could say could bring comfort to my distraught son, or quieten his wild cries. All he could see was a pet who he loved, alive, and adults who were proposing to take that life. I hugged him hard, and held him back as the vet took Brownie into another room and ended his suffering.

“You can fix the bill later,” the vet told me quietly, as Littlest Wombat cradled Brownie in his arms, a conflict of emotions. Grief over Brownie, anger towards me and deep confusion over the irreconcilable concepts of always trying and not giving up, yet encountering a situation where trying would not change the ultimate outcome.

Grief must run its course

All the way home, Littlest Wombat stormed and raged at me, his supply of tears seemingly inexhaustible, as he cuddled Brownie’s warm, inert body close. I bit my tongue, and kept my replies to a minimum.  I couldn’t totally ignore everything he was saying – that just felt rude – but I knew that logic would only further inflame his anguish.

When we arrived home, Train Wombat met us. I told him the sad news. He was very distressed too. However, he understood in a way that his youngest brother didn’t. I was so proud of my oldest boy. Caught up now in his own grief, he had room in his heart to comfort his brother. They sat side by side on the couch, Train Wombat’s arm around his brother, both stroking Brownie – so confusingly warm and lifelike. Together, they mourned the cute little creature who had brought them so much joy.

Pets are rarely “just” pets. When Harry the guinea pig died, Littlest Wombat informed me solemnly that it was like losing a brother. Losing Harry meant as much to him as one of my own brothers dying would have meant to me. There was no point in disagreeing. It wouldn’t have helped. So I knew from experience that it would take a while for him to deal with Brownie’s death.

Then my thoughts turned to the next morning. Wednesday. School. And the one day of the week when I had a paying job.

Sometimes, you just have to pick yourself up and keep going.

I didn’t want Littlest Wombat at home, mourning. I felt it was important for him to go to school and have his mind distracted for at least some of the time. And I needed to go to work. Train Wombat, however, was a different matter. We knew already that he was feeling under stress. How would this play out?

Again, he showed great self-awareness, saying he just didn’t feel he could cope at school if something went wrong. I was grateful that he shared this. It meant that the following morning, I could let him be, instead of having the anxiety of a “school refusal” morning and not knowing the cause.

The day after

After school that day, Train Wombat was very attentive to Littlest Wombat, sitting next to him on the couch when he came home, and watching a television show that usually, he scorns his brother for watching. Later that evening, they chose a place to bury Brownie and he was gently laid to rest under a tree where he loved to hide during his more successful escape attempts.

When the right thing might be the wrong thing

Sometimes I still wonder whether I did the right thing in taking my youngest to the vet with me. My pragmatic side says that death is a part of the life cycle. We shouldn’t avoid it, but instead, learn strategies to help us through it. I remember the sadness I felt when my pet rabbit died. And yet… This child is very sensitive, and literal. I had thought his sensitivity and desire to relieve his pet’s suffering would triumph. Instead, that love prevented him from being able to let go.

Our dog Morgan is ageing. One day, there will be another visit to the vet. I have long known that Dancing Wombat will find this difficult to understand, and I have been slowly trying to teach her about ageing, illness and the finality of death. The preparation for her little brother will need to be equally slow, sustained and gentle.

ASD pet death grief anger

Our kids’ grave for a frog friend

It’s never going to be easy to say “good-bye”. And ASD adds a whole other layer of complexity. But perhaps, if we are all better prepared, we can let go with grief and understanding, instead of anger and confusion. I’m just still trying to work out exactly how to do that.

Feel free to share things that have worked for you, or things that haven’t.

Until next time, may your Wombatting be worry-free.