I am the type of person who ranks honesty as one of my top values.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t pussyfoot around any subject, even those like vaginas, penes, and death.
I’ve tried to parent the same way, being open, honest, and answering my children’s questions as age-appropriately as I could.
I’ve been direct in letting them know that everyone makes mistakes. “Including adults.”
I’ve given them permission to let grown-ups know if they are affecting them adversely or are not treating them right.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to let someone know how you feel. You must speak with respect and courtesy and in a way that expresses your feelings without attacking the other person.”
And I’ve given them examples of positive ways to speak their minds.
I recently read a story about Rayden Sazam, an eight-year-old boy whose cat was accidentally euthanized after a series of unfortunate events.
Sadly, his tale also includes mature people whose malicious and deceitful actions played a significant role in the tragedy.
This young man wrote an incredibly mature, albeit heartbreaking, letter to his local paper about the incident.
His love for this creature, and the manner in which he processed this great calamity, reminded me of my daughter, and this excerpt from the story of her cat, Oliver.
My daughter’s kitten died suddenly. One minute he was in the yard playing, and the next, I heard a sharp cry.
When I located him beneath the bush in our front yard, drool dribbled from between his lips. Within minutes he could barely support his weight.
Weeks prior someone had thrown a bag of three kittens over a bridge near our home. We rescued the roughly six-weeks-old Oliver, an orange stripe. He was one of only two to survive the fall.
My daughter named him. The two became inseparable. He, her pet, and she, his human.
They played, watched TV, and slept together.
She wanted to make a place for him at the dinner table. I drew the line: No Fancy Feast cats in my house.
The evening of his death is forever etched in my memory.
Our son’s class was presenting their fourth grade play less than an hour from the onset of whatever struck the cat. I saw no signs of injury, though a car had passed moments before I heard the howl.
I called a veterinarian friend, but the kitten’s condition deteriorated, literally before my eyes. I set up a cozy bed of towels in our bathroom and placed the kitten in the quiet room, hoping against hope that he would somehow recover, yet recognizing he would likely be dead upon our return.
My wise, eight-years-old daughter, screamed to the heavens when I told her he had passed.
“Why!? Why would he survive being thrown over a bridge and then die like this?! It’s not fair.”
That is the first time I felt my heart break for one of my children.
She wailed as we walked toward the tree at the field’s edge, a magnificent oak where we have laid to rest our deceased pets.
How could I help her understand?
How could I explain death when I, myself, continued to grapple with it?
Wracking sobs filled her young body.
I sat down in the middle of the meadow, drew my daughter’s back to me, and rocked her as I beckoned my soul to produce words of comfort.
A gust of warm wind kicked up, swirled around us, and delivered this message through me: “Did you feel that? I think that breeze was Oliver’s spirit going up to heaven.”
She had felt the same gentle wind, and seemed to find some reassurance in its gentleness.
She spent the next two years indiscriminately drawing pictures of two crying creatures.
She created story book after story book of a happy beginning and a heartrending ending.
She colored them orange and blue.
She stapled the pages.
She bound them.
An eight-year-old’s memoir.
And she continued to sob as she asked that eternal, oft unanswered “Why?”
“Oliver knows how much he was loved. He had such a happy life with you here on earth. How blessed he was that we were here to provide and care for him, to have a little girl who showered him with so much affection. I believe those are the things he remembers. You gave him a very special love, and he loved you back.”
I tried to help her return to the joys they had shared, without minimizing her pain. As the two-year mark approached, I spoke with her doctor, fearing her expression of sorrow had gone on a bit long.
The doctor asked a few questions and assured me my daughter was working through her grief. She felt I simply needed to continue to be observant and supportive.
My daughter had begun to incorporate fewer teardrops and more smiles on hers and the cat’s faces. Little by little, she added more color to the flowers and the sun-filled sky.
I plodded along with her as she toddled through her first intimate experience with death.
From time to time, Oliver will insert himself into some story being retold, some joy we are reminiscing.
The bodies of two other beloved animals have since joined him at the base of the tree. The spirits, however, continue to dance as zephyrs across our land. Nature’s elegant, poignant grace.
I searched high and low for a kitten, not to be had in the middle of November.
The youngest feline to be found was a five-month-old that was born on a farm some thirty minutes from our house.
Beauty and I made the trek and brought home a shiny, jet-black babe.
My girl named him Lucky. Lucky because she had found him. Lucky because he now had a best friend.
We did everything within our power to keep him in the house, but every time we opened the door he dashed between our legs and raced to the fields that housed the mice and moles.
We finally gave in to allow him the freedom to come and go as he wanted.
Unfortunately, when Lucky was two, Warren found him in the middle of the road. Hit by a car.
It was sports season, a time of year that finds our family going in different directions each night and always returning home late.
Warren put the body over a bank, so Beauty wouldn’t see him on her way to the bus stop. I later retrieved his corpse, and Warren and I buried him.
I wanted to wait for the right time to tell my girl; it just seemed so callous to do it to her again.
I couldn’t bring myself to say over breakfast or dinner, “I have bad news, Honey; Lucky was hit by a car. I know you’re sad and I’m so sorry, but it’s time to head out to practice/school/scouts.”
I did what I never thought I’d do. I didn’t say a word.
Basically, it was a lie by omission.
One day turned into two, which quickly rolled into nearly fourteen.
I was left with no choice when Beauty said through a mouth full of food at our evening meal, “Has anyone seen Lucky? He hasn’t been around for a while.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry…”
She was pissed. And rightfully so.
Even though I’m not convinced I’d handle a do-over any differently, I fully understand why she felt betrayed by us.
All I could do was tell her that we acted in a way that we felt was best, given the circumstances.
This time around, her grief, though raw, wasn’t quite as intense.
At a tender age, she also recognized life’s irony and paradox.
“Lucky wasn’t so lucky, after all, was he?”
How about you? How have you approached tough conversation and tragedy with your children?