“Daddy!!  Something’s wrong with Max!!”  Erin’s face was a mask of anguish.  “He’s making sounds I’ve never heard before…and he’s laying wrong!”

Erin’s guinea pig Max, the first pet that was all her own, was clearly not okay. The vet confirmed an upper respiratory infection the next morning, dispensing a little medicine and not much hope. 

Erin held him all evening, cooing and stroking and sobbing. In the morning, he was gone.

I know the loss of Max, as painful as it is for her, is an important experience. Pets can contribute, however unwillingly, to our lifelong education in mortality. 

The deaths of my own various guinea pigs, dogs, fish, and rabbits were my first introductions to irretrievable loss. At their passings, I learned two things Erin is learning now:  how to grieve, and just how deeply we can love.  They certainly helped prepare me for the sudden loss of my father.  It didn’t make the loss itself any easier, nor did it shorten my grief, which continues to this day.  But the grief didn’t blindside me in quite the way it would have if my father’s death had been my first experience of profound loss.

Erin hugged Max’s little body to her for an hour and keened. She stroked his fur and touched his teeth and gently rolled his tiny paws between her fingers, all the time whispering Maxie, Maxie. Please wake up. Then came a monologue both stunning and familiar—that ancient litany of regret, guilt, and helplessness.

Listen to The first really hard goodbye on the Raising Freethinkers podcast.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.