The last month has been tough around here. Lachlan has been processing the death of one of his school teachers and then yesterday our pet rabbit, Beau passed away. Our sweet rabbit took his last breath in my arms while Lachlan stood over me. I cried while I stroked his soft fur and thanked him for being such a loving companion to us over the last year.
Beau was a rescue bunny. We adopted him from the RSPCA just a year ago. He was an older rabbit and not trainable like our previous one. He peed and pooed everywhere and never earned the privilege of being a house bunny. He was so sweet though and like all animals he loved us unconditionally and we adored him. We were happy to give him his forever home with us, though we wish it would have been for longer.
A teary eyed Lachlan asked if we were going to bury him. I agreed but we would have to wait for the rain let up. We sat outside next to Beau as the gentle rain fell from the sky and tears slowly streamed down our cheeks. I asked him how he was feeling. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “okay” and wished that the rain would ease up soon. It did and we went into the garage to locate the shovel. He said that he wanted to dig the hole and found one of his own. We walked up to the spot in the garden next to our other rabbit’s resting place and after looking for the perfect spot broke into the soft earth with his spade.
Lachlan wanted to own every step of the process. I could tell that doing so was very therapeutic for him. I also gathered that it wasn’t all about Beau either, but also about his teacher that he lost last month as well. We have lost pets over the years but I have never seen him so adamant to be involved. There was never any news of a funeral for his teacher as I think the family kept it private and I think he has had this lingering sense of needing closure. Going through the burial ritual for Beau seemed to be bringing a completion to both deaths–at least I hope this is the case.
After he dug the grave, I gently lowered our beloved Beau into it and Lachlan very gently filled up dirt all around him, over his body and lastly his head. He collected some of Beau’s favourite treats from the garden: a lovely bouquet of flowers, herbs, dandelion and clover. He and Noelle used a heart shaped rock we found at the beach over the summer to make a headstone for him.
We said a prayer and gently laid them in place on his grave. And then…
The world went on again. All three of my children ran around the garden, collecting beetles with smiles and giggles. There was no trace of what had just happened.
Parents often ask if this is normal and yes, it is. Children are really good at living in the present. They master it so much better than us as their life experiences are incredibly small compared to an adults. When something tough occurs, it is generally a new encounter for them. Unlike with us adults, it can often trigger a memory–and often unpleasant.
We of course can’t assume that the smiles and giggles means that they are done processing the event. This takes time and we need to allow children exactly that: time. We also need to provide a healthy space to grieve, which includes an adult who will listen and answer questions.
Listening is key. Also be careful not to assume your child feels a certain way. In death we often approach children with; “you must be sad.” However, sometimes that feeling is not there for the child. A better approach is: “How are you feeling about this?” The child might be sad, angry, confused, numb, guilty and so on. Death brings complex emotions some all felt at once and others on different days of the week. The harm in assuming a child feels sad when he doesn’t is that it may create guilt as the child asks, “What is wrong with me. Why am I not sad? Mom is sad, so I should be too.” This can create a space where the child is afraid to open up because he feels like his feelings are not the norm and will not be accepted. He might even feel ashamed.
A helpful tip when talking about life and death with children is by answering their questions with a question. We need to be careful not to answer with more than what they are truly asking and this technique helps with this. I often give the example of when our 4 year old niece was staying with us and asked me out of the blue if I thought that she would ever die. I was caught of guard while trying to enjoy a Vegemite sandwich with her. This was the last thing on my mind! I wasn’t quite sure where this all came from and what she was really asking or thinking about so I simply asked: “Well, what do you think?” She immediately replied with a smile, ” I think I am going to live a very, very long time!” and then asked if we could go outside for a walk to the park.
That was it! I was off the hook. She answered her own question and was pleased. She didn’t even yearn for my response or flinch. Off she skipped. Can you imagine if I would have answered with details about life and death, perhaps saying that we all die or our time is on Earth is uncertain? I could have opened up a discussion that she was not developmentally ready for or even inquiring about at all!
Another important thing to keep in mind is that it is okay to not have all the answers. If your child asks you a question and you are caught off guard (and almost choke on your Vegemite) or just quite frankly do not know the answer, tell your child that you need some time to think about it. That is totally okay! Telling your child you aren’t quite sure, want to look into it more to give him the best answer is an admirable quality. Just make sure that you set a time to get back to your child with the answer, otherwise he will be afraid to ask again or fear he did something wrong by asking in the first place.
Remember that children are resilient. They are capable of getting through a lot! Think of all that your have survived in your life. Yes, life is a roller coaster but having supportive and loving parents that a child can count on is key. This really builds up that resilience factor; having a sounding board and a safe place to ask questions is so important.
Always follow your child’s lead. Death is hard stuff. The feelings are complex and we all grieve differently. Some children will want to be involved in some sort of planning and carrying out the rituals of the process. Others, will just not care or need space to be alone. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. I am reminded during times like these of a verse that talks about how God gave us one mouth and two ears and that we should learn to use them proportionately. It is so true. These are the times to do more listening than speaking. Often open arms are ears are the best comfort.
So we take it day by day. The sun rose today and there was no mention of Beau. As soon as we are out in the garden I know someone will be mentioned. It might be wondering if Beau is in Heaven (My children envision all our small animals in Heaven being cared for by my Grandpa Bill who passed a few years ago) or it might be asking if we will get another rabbit.
I think at the moment we will not be adding any more furry companions to our brood. As much as the children would love to welcome another rabbit. I think this momma needs a little respite for awhile (especially since we have broods of other animals/creatures in our care. At the end of the day I am the one that has to make sure they are all fed and well; whether I care for them myself or have to constantly remind the children to. It is just more on my plate and I have had a very full one this year! I think we will be enjoying what we have at the moment.
All the best.