Guest Blogger: Cindy Pineo
Photos: (Left-Cindy and son. Right- Baby J with Waltz looking on)
In August 2019, our fluffy black cat, Waltz, was killed by a coyote. My spouse and I were shocked and guilt ridden: He should have lived many more years, and we had thought he was safe in our backyard. Our four-year-old son J, we worried, would be devastated. J told us regularly, “I love Waltz most of all, then Mommy, then Daddy, then Grandma.” The order of human preferences changed, but Waltz always came first in his heart.
J’s love for Waltz was lifelong. His first word was “kkk-kkk” (kitty). His biggest physical challenge as a toddler was to touch Waltz gently, which he could almost never do. Waltz rejected J a lot, but sometimes he played and cuddled. Maybe Waltz’s intermittent rewards cemented J’s affection, or maybe J just loved him, without reason or conditions. As time passed, J’s hands became gentler and Waltz got used to having a child around. They had a good thing going.
When Waltz died, J’s reaction was bland and noncommittal. He would smile slightly and say, “I sort of miss him.” Was this denial, the first stage of grief? Or was J acting out his grief in other ways? It didn’t seem like it. His expressions of happiness and misery were no different from usual. If anything, J enjoyed talking about Waltz’s demise (a coyote!) but he didn’t seem to have a lot of, you know, feelings about it.
I checked out books. First, we read some library standards: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (1971) by Judith Viorst and The Best Cat in the World (2004) by Lesléa Newman. In both, a white boy mourns the loss of a beloved cat. These books didn’t help me figure out J’s nonchalant reaction (the book–boys actively grieved, stopped eating, got angry, got sad) but they helped us craft a memorial service. We listed together ten things we loved about Waltz, and J suggested planting a rose bush on the grave, just like the family in The Best Cat in the World. We didn’t, because the grave was in full shade, but we marked it with a small cement cat statue.
We read Big Cat, Little Cat, a spare book about house cats who mourn lost companions and welcome new ones. Jed’s grief was more like book-cat mourning than book-boy mourning – -wordless and accepting. We read Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey, which is dramatic and heartwarming. In it human and animal lives are intertwined and precious, and both the cat and its human family have a happy ending.
In fall of 2019, Jed started preschool at Hawthorne Family Playschool. I was given the role of school librarian, and my commitment to social justice in children’s books bloomed. I gradually found books about losing pets with a more diverse set of characters and authors. The lovely Rosie & Crayon uses colors to show a girl’s emotional journey when her dog dies. Ida, Always is about a terminally ill polar bear and her best friend, who say goodbye gracefully. But my favorite is The Dead Bird, which is matter-of-fact and unflinching. The kids who find the dead bird are caring, but not sentimental. They observe the little dead body. They bury it. They sing a song, and then they forget.
After a while, Jed started talking about Waltz. He asked me some questions about how I would feel if he died, and if I would remember him. Then he came up with his own formulation. “I will always love Waltzy’s memory. I will always love it in my heart.” I don’t know which, if any, of the books we ready helped him process his grief, but they are all part of our complex and mutual emotional lives.
Books mentioned in this post:
*Starred titles are on HFP’s Recommended Books list.
*Brown, Margaret Wise. The Dead Bird. 1938; newly illustrated edition 2016 with pictures by Christian Robinson.
Cooper, Elisha. Big Cat, Little Cat. 2017.
*Kuntz, Doug, and Amy Shrodes. Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey. 2017.
*Lewis, Caron. Ida, Always. Illustrated by Charles Santoso. 2016.
*Marcero, Deborah. Rosie & Crayon. 2017.
Newman, Lesléa. The Best Cat in the World. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. 2004.
*Viorst, Judith. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. 1971.