I've never had a greal deal of sympathy for bereaved pet owners who need counselling when Fido has shuffled off his mortal lead. But then I never realised how Dennis, he of the unfeasibly large testicles and hairless pink tail, had gnawed his way to my affections until I found myself in the vet's consulting room, tears streaming down my face, being told that the prognosis for a dehydrated rat with upper respiratory infection was not good.

This was particularly embarrassing as my four children were standing there dry-eyed, the 11-year-old keenly tugging at my sleeve asking if he could make the funeral arrangements. (They've never forgotten the splendid send off for Oscar, my parents' one-eyed dog, had - he was buried to the strains of Neil Young's Old King ("I had a dog, and his name was King.") Very moving it was too).

Dennis's only hope - and it was a very slim one - said the pretty young vet, gently kissing him on the head, thus instigating a fresh eruption of tears from me, was constant nursing over the weekend. Too weak to feed himself, he has had to be hand-fed Milupa baby food and hydrating solution by syringe - an exercise in nurturing which has, for the moment, staved off the demands by some of the children for a new baby brother. But I have had to put a dampener on their enthusiasm for alternative treatments - I may have bonded with Dennis but I draw the line at breastfeeding him.

By Saturday night, when the younger ones had finally got their heads around the idea of a prognosis not being a cause for celebration (they had thought it meant Dennis was having babies) they had more than made up for unspilt tears at the vet's surgery. Casualty was sheer light entertainment compared to the harrowing scenes at home. So it was a relief to escape to a friend's 50th birthday party, where a nice psychologist told us that Dennis's death would, in the long run, only be beneficial to the children's development.

Pets are good for children, but dead pets are even better, apparently. It would, he said, prepare for our deaths. He's right, I'm sure - in fact I can see it now: I will only have to take to my bed with a slight snuffle, and the children will be there forcing open my mouth and squirting foul- smelling Milupa vegetable broth down my throat.

But certainly there have been some benefits from this weekendus horribilis - it has taken the 11-year-old's mind off the Third World War. His somewhat precipitate request for a nice burial plot for Dennis is a lot easier to oblige than the demand that his father build an Anderson shelter in the garden. And it has made the girls forget about my haircut. Having taken to heart Age Concern's message about old people becoming invisible but not having the wherewithal inside my bra to draw attention to myself in any other way, I have had a radical 1950s schoolboy crop.

I don't know whether Demi had this problem, but as soon as my five-year- old saw me, she burst into hysterial sobs and told me I looked "horrible" - just the sort of confidence booster you need when you've had your tumbling locks shorn. The hairdresser told me a short cut would make me look younger (not that I care, oh, goodness me, no) but the children soon put paid to that, pointing out that the "hundreds" of grey hairs that the hairdresser had somehow excavated made me look like an old granny, and please could I not come in to school until I had had them dyed. Horrible little ageists.