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How to help your kids deal with the loss of a pet

The ad posted in the Hollywood newspaper read: “Free to a good home. Cat, litter box, bag of food. $20 dollars for everything.” Seemed like a good deal to me! I called the number and spoke to a kind woman who said she was looking for a good home for a rescue cat. The next day a crazy, fierce black cat arrived on my doorstep.

This cat was the exact opposite of what I was hoping for. He was a Hollywood street cat and totally wild. I was really hoping for a cuddly, snugly cat that would sit in my lap, purring while offering endless affection. What I got was a snarling, biting, scratching, hissing cat that jumped from the floor to the tiny, narrow edge of my door frame and screamed until I got him down. He would knock everything off my shelves. Lots of things got broken. But you get what you get! I had to make it work.

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I named this black panther Cole. We eventually became best buddies and spent almost two decades together. He thought he was a human with a cat face and tail. When I moved back to Toronto, he came with me. Cole was there for many important life milestones; he met many of my boyfriends and was at home waiting when I brought my son home from the hospital after his birth in 2006. Cole and my son had a very special relationship and loved each other. Cole was truly a member of our family.

In June 2014, Cole passed away shortly before he would have turned 18. I was heartbroken even though I knew he had a great life.

Here are a few things that helped my son and I get through those hard times:

1. We read Rainbow Bridge

The first time I read the poem about Rainbow Bridge, I started bawling. I read my son the poem, and we talked a lot about death and Rainbow Bridge.

Rainbow Bridge is a place near heaven where pets go once they have left this Earth. They all run free and play together, and if they were sick on Earth, they are now healthy. The mystical bridge brings me comfort and hope that Cole is happy and running free among his animal friends.

My son and I talked about what a soul is, what a body is and what happens when we die. I try not to impose my own views of the afterlife on my son, and I always end with, “This is what I believe to be true, but other people may believe something else. When you’re older, you will believe what’s in your heart.” Believing in Rainbow Bridge and a continued existence has brought us both comfort and peace.

2. We had ceramic paw prints made

We will always have memories of Cole, and this seemed like the perfect thing to do to help preserve that. My son and I each got a paw print. His is purple, and he keeps it in his special desk drawer. Mine hangs in a frame in our hallway under Cole’s photo so we pass by it all the time. There are many ways to create lasting memories of pets, such as burials and ceremonies and special tributes. We also have lots of happy photos of Cole scattered throughout our home.

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3. We had a chance to say goodbye

Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy, but I feel blessed that my son and I both got to say goodbye to Cole before he left for Rainbow Bridge. My son had alone time with Cole and got to give him extra cuddles and kisses. My son made three matching bracelets, and we all wore one. He didn’t come with me to the vet on Cole’s last day, as I thought that would be traumatic for him. Cole was in my arms when he passed (wearing the bracelet), and I told him how much I loved him. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

4. We don’t hide our feelings

One evening over dinner, a song came on the radio that reminded me of Cole, and I started to cry into my salad. My cucumbers and tomatoes were covered in salty tears. My son looked at me worriedly and asked, “Will you ever be happy again?” I didn’t hide my sadness from him; rather I explained that it’s OK to be sad and talk about feelings. And I assured him that yes, I would most definitely be happy again. I told him we could talk about Cole anytime he wants. I explained that we would always love Cole, and some days we may feel sadder than others. Half an hour later, we were dancing to another song on the radio.

5. Taking care of our other pet

Our little family actually consisted of two cats, Cole and Jasper. They did everything together and snuggled in the same cat bed for 12 years. Jasper had such a hard time when Cole never came home that he stopped eating for weeks. We thought we were going to lose him too. Jasper was heartbroken. Helping Jasper heal from Cole’s passing helped us at the same time. We needed him as much as he needed us. Jasper is happy again, and so are we.

If we adopt another cat one day, it will not be to replace Cole, but rather to save another life.

More: 18 super-adorable puppy photos that will make your heart happy

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