A Child Loses a Pet
by Ute Carson
Death Education, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter 1980

Acquiring a pet in our household has never been for the purpose of providing a "learning experience" for our children. We like animals and whenever the request came, "Oh, please, can we take this little kitten home," our response was, "Let's do." We have always expected our children to share responsibility for taking care of our animals. When our bird Peter was given to us, it was understood that Caitlin and Claudia would take turns changing his water and bringing him fresh seeds. Without needing to be told, our year-old Cecile found out that kitty's response to having his fur pulled was to take off in a dead run. Sitting on the floor beside him she now runs her fingers gently through his hair cooing, "Oo-oo."

One day our girls came home from school excited. "Our teacher's rabbit had babies and we are getting two." "Hold it," I our interrupted. "Who said you can have rabbits? We already have a cat and a bird that we have to keep in separate parts of the house." "Mrs. B. said we could have rabbits," was their stormy reply. "Oh, please, Mommie, can we? We can put them in the garage. Mrs. B. told us all about it." "Did she?" I sighed. "Next time ask your parents first before you agree to another animal." "Okay, we will." The girls jumped up and down. "Can we go and get them this afternoon?" "Let's tell Mrs. B Œin a few days' and ask Dad tonight if he can build a hutch over the weekend."

Building that hutch turned into a family project. By Sunday night it was ready to be put on cement blocks‹safely off the ground‹and the girls laid on the finishing touches by painting the new roof. We even drove out to a nearby farm to purchase a bale of hay for cooler days. The rabbits had a glorious reception in their new habitat. Even after the initial joy of owning rabbits wore off, Caitlin and Claudia would faithfully feed their animals after school, watch them graze (so they would not nip all the leaves off my plants), and clean the hutch on weekends. On school days that task had fallen to me. We were not sure how two males would react to each other, but they seemed content together and grew quite tame. They came running at the sound of their names. No amount of argument could persuade our 7-year-old Caitlin not to name her gray rabbit "Snowflake." Our 5-year-old Claudia insisted on calling her white rabbit "Kathy."

It was a brisk fall morning when I went out to do my daily the cleaning chores. Off from school that day, the girls accompanied me with rake and paper bag to get busy cleaning the rabbit hutch. "Come here quickly," Caitlin called, "the rabbits have worms. Something pink is moving in the hay." "Those are not worms," I informed them, looking in, "Kathy and Snowflake have had a litter." "Oh, really!" The girls jumped up and down with joy. Caitlin had already reached in and was holding a naked, squirming baby rabbit in her hand. "It looks like a mouse," Claudia commented. "When will it open its eyes? Do they grow fur like Kathy and Snowflake?" While answering, I was contemplating what to do next. All of a sudden Caitlin cried out, "Look, Mommie, one has fallen out. It is all covered with ants. Get the ants off, quickly." In no time she was busy cleaning the baby rabbit herself. Her next concern was to get that one back with its mother. We called the rabbit pair back to the hutch. Any other day a cabbage leaf would have done the trick. This morning we had to chase them through the yard. Once inside the hutch they pushed finally vigorously against the door in an attempt to get back out. Caitlin was horrified to see that Snowflake seemed to trample her babies. "How can she do that to them?" she screamed. "Isn't she supposed to take good care of them?" I could calm her down only by convincing her that she was probably doing that because of all the excitement around her. It was time to leave her alone with her little ones. Being new to the experience of rabbit breeding, I decided to call the veterinarian clinic. Armed with professional advice, I returned a few minutes later to determine who was the father and who was the mother, as the couple needed to be separated at once. Claudia's small white "Kathy" turned out to be the father. She solved the name problem quickly by changing Kathy into Katho but was less able to adapt to the fact that her rabbit had to be put into a separate makeshift home.

As our rabbit saga unfolded, both girls were to project events occurring in our backyard on to our family situation. For Claudia that process started with the removal of Katho into his new habitat. "Won't he miss his babies?" she queried. "Wouldn't Daddy be sad if we had sent him away when we were born?" To restore her confidence in the importance of fathers in the life of the young, I did two things. At bedtime I pulled from the shelf a book on animal fathers and selected a few stories in which fathers take part in caring for their offspring. In an attempt to make the connection to our Dad I recounted the time I had gone to the hospital to have baby Cecile. Only after I had come back had Daddy started to help with the caretaking. I explained that some mothers have to do the tasks first before their mates may join them. The thought that her Katho would eventually be allowed to return to his family comforted Claudia greatly. Meanwhile, night had come. For extra protection against the cold we had covered the hutch with blankets. Throughout the evening the girls urged me to check the rabbits one more time. Caitlin worried aloud whether the ant-bitten baby would get extra milk. "Snowflake will take good care of all her babies, won't she?" she tried to convince herself. "That's what a mother is supposed to do," she emphasized one more time. Full of excitement over the unanticipated arrivals and eager for their Daddy to return from a business trip, the girls finally dropped off to sleep. I had my own worries about the baby rabbits. The veterinarian had warned me that the mother might not accept her litter. There was a possibility that the presence of her mate had undermined her interest in her young. I also suspected that the damaged newborn would be thrown out of the nest. But I was still pitching for the rest. I stalled in the morning when the girls wanted to check on the babies first thing. "Let's wait until after school to look at them," I told them. It's still too cold to take the covers off. With some reluctance I looked into the hutch shortly after I had sent the girls off to school. Snowflake was eager to escape into the yard. I could detect no movement in the hay and on closer examination found all the babies to be dead.

I put them in a box for burial and decided to await the girls' arrival. Later that I had to call a friend to cancel an outing we had planned with our children that day. I explained why we couldn't go. "If I were you," she counseled me, "I would bury the rabbits now and just tell the children about their deaths. Seeing the babies dead might upset them unduly." I began to vascillate. What motivated me to carry out my original plan and wait for the children was the memory of my own childhood experiences. I, myself, had had many a pet die, and I remembered well the little cemetery I had constructed or them. That they had died had saddened me, but burying them had helped me through the grief.

It wasn't easy to tell the girls the sad news. A stormy outburst of tears and rage was Caitlin' response. "I don't want them dead," she howled and then she start furiously ripping the leaves off one of my rubber plants. Claudia stood silently, staring at her untouched snack. "I want to call Daddy," Caitlin interrupted her sobbing, and so we did. Out of the midst of an afternoon meeting, he was called to the phone to hear a quite unexpected story. I have often wondered why they turned to my husband at that point. Both children always want to share events that are happening to them with the absent parent. That was part of it, but in this case they also expected help from my husband, as a later comment by Claudia revealed. "If you had been here, Daddy, you could have been the rabbits' doctor." One of their early beliefs was that someone, or something, must surely be able to restore the rabbits to life. The children also perceived me to be emotionally upset. I had conveyed my concern about the rabbits to them. They wanted and expected my concern, but they clearly didn't want too much involvement on my part. As Caitlin explained to her dad, "I didn't want Mommie to be sad, too." Days later she told the whole story to a friend, saying, "I could see what had happened immediately from the look on my mother's face." A realization dawned on me. If part of a child's stable world breaks, it is important that the rest of that world remain intact. The task of the adult, I learned, is to provide answers to troubling questions and to give practical guidance. Empathizing with the distraught child is required. Since the child is not yet equipped to master many a problem, she must be reassured of the adult's ability to cope.

Only after I had convinced the girls that we could not make the rabbits alive again did they consent to the burial. "They look alive," Caitlin insisted. Even after she had touched them and felt how cold and stiff they were she responded, "Couldn't I warm them?" We se1ected a spot in the corner of our yard. I handed them each a spade and we all dug a shallow hole. Caitlin interrupted her crying for the first time during that activity. Earlier I had urged Claudia to talk with her dad on the phone, but she only repeated to me in a monotone "the baby rabbits are dead the baby rabbits are dead. . . ." Now, shoveling the sand back into the grave, she spoke for the first time. "I'm glad their eyes are still shut," she commented, "so the sand can't get in."

The girls decorated the grave with pretty stones and pine cones and then fetched our elderly neighbor lady and showed her their work. She admired the burial place and told them that sometimes out of sadness something beautiful grows. Our girls took to that idea right away and insisted on planting a rose bush on the grave. Mrs. W. also told them that maybe the rabbits were much better off now, being with God. At bedtime Caitlin whispered to me, "I don't care if the rabbits are better off with God, I would rather have them alive and with me."

Conflict situations of this magnitude are seldom resolved on the spot. They must be worked through over time. Our girls asked many questions in the days following the episode. Caitlin visited Mrs. W. repeatedly, inquiring about her dead husband, and as Mrs. W. related to me later, she was very interested in whether they loved each other and how often she thought about him and why anybody ever had to be taken away from people and places they love. Children react variously to the loss of a pet. Personality makes a difference and so does age. Caitlin's outward expressions of her grief elicited immediate responses. It would have been easy to overlook Claudia's silent mourning. The two ways of dealing with the same event demanded different responses from the adults. Some encouragement was needed for Claudia to express her feelings. She held them back until nighttime when I sat down at her beside. All of a sudden she began to sob uncontrollably, and no amount of coaching from me produced any verbal explanation.

At last she was able to speak. "I'm glad I am only 5; only when you are old do you die," but she added "Daddy once said that babies also die." She recalled a story my husband had told about a defective newborn. Her two assertions were only apparently contradictory. They show both her attempt to deny the fact of death by pushing it far away into old age and her identification with the rabbits. If rabbits can die and babies can die, so can I . Her first concern was for herself, the fear that death could happen to her. Caitlin, being older, was more worried about the durability of relationships, as her questions to Mrs. W. show. When she saw the film version of Bambi, she was inconsolable, at the death of the fawn's mother. Fear of the loss of or separation from a parent seemed of primary concern to hear. Both children showed an increased need to be physically close to one of us during the days following the death of the rabbits.

The teacher who had given the girls the rabbits now gave them some advice. "There is renewal in life," she told the girls. "Your rabbits can have little ones again." For the coming weeks that is what we hoped and prepared ourselves for - the next litter! Unfortunately the story did not have the happy ending we ourselves anticipated. In spite of all our careful preparations, Snowflake would not accept her young. We went through another burial and more explanations. Help finally came from an unexpected source. A student learning to become a zoo keeper persuaded the girls to give him their rabbits. It was hard for them to bring Katho and Snowflake to their new home, but to our amazement they parted from them after the student told them he would find out for them why Snowflake had not been a good mother. "Ill get to the bottom of the problem for you," he reassured them.

Katho and Snowflake are not forgotten by our girls, and the story of the death their babies is told again and again. But comfort came from the assurance that grown-ups, parents, teachers, neighbors, even incidental acquaintances - took children's puzzling questions seriously and tried to come up with answers to them.

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