When my husband and I discovered our son’s pet fish floating upside down in its bowl a while back, we knew it would be a hard blow to J. But I didn’t realize quite how hard.
“Honey, I’m sorry to tell you this, but Probios is dead. He’s passed away.”
“Dead?” cried J, his little voice cracking. “I don’t want him to be dead!”
Full on tears came, and not the whiney type either. He was hysterically upset. We tried to explain that we’re so sorry, but this is part of life- that all living things die eventually. But he continued to intersperse our explanations with protests: “Forever?!? I don’t want him to be dead forever! Why can’t he wake up?!?”
And so, finally, I just held him. And let him cry. Everything in me wanted to offer to go buy another fish right then, to soothe the pain of this loss. But I made myself wait. Let him process the grief, I thought. You will rob him of that privilege if you try to mask the pain.
After a good fifteen or twenty minutes of crying, we were able to talk a bit about life and death, for both people and animals. We were able to talk about how we could remember Probios. And then we talked about where we should let him rest.
J did not want to flush his fish down the toilet. But he liked the idea of letting him be food for the plants. Despite us offering several times, he resisted the idea of helping to bury him. So Dada layed Probios with the cilantro in the herb garden for his little fishy grave.
And then, that was that. J mentioned him once or twice afterwards, but the pain was over. He grieved, he fought and struggled, cried a bit, and seemed to resolve the whole reality in his mind as much as he needed to for his age. And I am so grateful that we had the chance to talk about life and death a bit, and that he had the time he needed to be sad and to process the whole event.
Last week, I came home to one of our hens dead in the coop. It was a bit shocking for me, honestly. I had expected to let her lay eggs until it was time for her to hit the soup pot. I wasn’t planning on her dying before that. I wasn’t sure what I should tell J, but decided to give him the opportunity to deal with this animal death as well.
“J, one of the hens is dead out in the coop. I’m not sure why she died. I’m going to have to go bury her. Would you like to come with me and help, or would you prefer to stay inside while I do it?”
“Oh, I can come!” he replied, without a tear or hint of distress. “I can help you with my shovel!”
So, we went out together to dig a hole just outside the main yard, each with our shovels. Then J followed me up to the coop, and we looked the bird over together to see if we could determine why it died. (I didn’t let him touch in case the bird had been carrying a disease.) We couldn’t see anything noticeably wrong, so I double bagged the hen’s body and took it to the hole we had dug. J helped me pile up the dirt again, then we laid rocks on top of her grave.
I was surprised. After the fish had died, he was so upset. After the chicken died, he seemed to accept it. Perhaps the difference was that one was a pet and the other was a food source. It’s hard to know for sure. But I felt that I gleaned a couple of important lessons from these two animal deaths.
Children need to process animal death in their own time and in their own way. They may not react how we expect them to. But every adult deals with death differently- why should we expect children to be any different?
Children should be given the opportunity to have closure, but not forced to do more than they are able. Perhaps this means saying goodbye, drawing a picture, seeing the animal, or helping to bury it. Perhaps it means staying further from the situation and simply talking about it. Perhaps it just means giving them private time to think about it. It’s hard to say. It all depends so much on the individual child. I think that offering the opportunity is what’s important, so we don’t rob them of a crucial process that we all must come to at some point or another in life.
We shouldn’t hide animal death from children. It’s hard for us as adults to see our babies hurting. But this is an opportunity for them to learn more about life and death. It’s a chance for us to have the hard conversations with our children. It’s a time that they can grow through and become stronger. And in some ways, dealing with animal death can help to acquaint them with death in general, and help to give them tools they need to grieve when bigger losses arise- a place that was special to them, a friend who moved away, or even the death of a loved one.
Even though neither animal death was pleasant to deal with, I am ultimately grateful for the opportunity I had to grow closer with J and have important talks with him. How does your child deal with death? Do you have any thoughts that would be helpful for other parents as they approach animal death with their children?