Last week, we had a death in the family. Our beautiful bunny Cadbury passed away and breaking the news to my three children was excruciating. There were questions (theirs), there were cuddles (mine) and there were tears (all of ours).
After an emotionally wrought 48hours, my husband and I looked at each other and said "no more pets!" Did we mean it? Well, at the time - yes! We were heartbroken ourselves, and seeing our little ones so devestated and thinking we could possibly prevent that from happening again was a driving force in that comment. But in reality, we know that there will inevitably be another pet in our home (albeit not for a while) and we know that although this experience was painful, it was also an opportunity to learn about life and death, to question "what happens after death?", to support one another.
This got me thinking about our experiences with death in early childhood education. Some services have pets - rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs, birds, fish. What happens when they die? Do we tell the children? Do we swap out the goldfish for another similar one? Do we say that the rabbit "ran away"? Or do we speak honestly about what has happened?
Many years ago, when directing, I arrived at our service to discover that a fox had gotten into the chicken coop and very little - well, feathers and blood - remained. It was an awful scene. After the hasty cleanup before the children came into our playground, we contemplated "what do we tell them?" The children would notice in an instant that the chickens were gone - they were attached to these animals, collecting their eggs daily, feeding them, cuddling them and seeing them free-range in the playground. After some deliberation, it was agreed that we would be honest. And we were. We told the children simply and sadly, what had happened - without the gory detail - and as expected, they were sad. They had questions. They had thoughts. They felt something for those chickens. And isn't that what we want? Children who are thoughtful, who are curious, who are emotionally connected?
My children decided that they wanted to create a special space in the backyard for our bunny. One suggested making a cross from paper - then realised it would become soggy when it rained. Another suggested a gravestone - then decided it might be hard to obtain. My hubsand told us that his friends wife - a vet nurse - said many people paint special rocks and put them in the garden to remember their pets. They liked this idea and started it off by finding some of the many painted rocks they have already found (one child in particular is a magnet for them when we are out!) and placing them in the special space. When their Nan arrived a few hours later, she came bearing a small bunch of handpicked flowers, which the children took and laid in the garden.
These moments of ritual - of saying goodbye, of coming together, were hard (so many tears) but they were important. While our instinct - as parents, and as educators - is always to protect children, to keep them safe, we actually owe them the opportunity to deal with big feelings, to experience the rawness and realness that is life - and sadly, death - in their own way.
It's almost been a week and the initial devestation has subsided. They are still sad (I'm still sad), but every now and then I see them in the garden looking at Cadbury's special spot, or hear them talking fondly about him and laughing about the funny things he did (he was an indoor bunny who delighted in greeting us like a meerkat each morning, up on his hind legs), and I know that they will be okay and that this experience, while heartbreaking, was valuable in its own way.