This past week, I dug a grave. It was a tiny one – just rat-sized – to bury our family pet. It was, in fact, the second such plot I had to prepare in less than a month. As I cut through the thick roots that seemed to weave just under the surface of our entire back yard, it grimly occurred to me that digging a grave is much more difficult than they make it seem in the movies. But with my husband away, the job – and shovel – of grave digger for our two rats had fallen into my hands, as well as the painful and daunting task of beginning a ‘death dialogue’ with my two young sons. Pets die; we all know this. In fact people also die, and although I counted myself lucky that my first major discussion on the circle of life involved a rat rather than a relative, I was dreading it nonetheless.
Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The truth is I am consistently apprehensive about the concept of my own mortality. The idea of suddenly and permanently ceasing to exist seems extremely unpleasant, to say the least. I’m sure my lack of a formal religious upbringing and being born a third-generation hypochondriac doesn’t help my spiritual or secular chances of feeling comfortable with the idea of eventually passing over into either nothingness or (possibly) somethingness, but I was determined not to let my neurotic fears get passed on into the brains and hearts of my children.
After the death of the first rat, I attempted to reconcile my own feelings, and delivered what turned out to be a rather forced and phony soliloquy about ‘all things coming to an end’ and a reference that I believe came from Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ about our dead rat feeding the soil which will then feed the plants and other animals and thus allow our pet to live on in some cosmic form of recycling. I think I even mentioned the distinct possibility that our rat would be reunited with loved ones in ‘rat heaven’ and could frolic once more together on some giant hamster wheel in the sky.
I felt like a hypocrite, and when the second one passed away weeks later, I reconsidered my approach. My sons were already very familiar with the idea of death as it related to cartoons and video games. Violence and fatalities without consequence is a concept that is almost unavoidable in this society. Were my sons immune to the idea of a loss of life at this point? Were all the studies about television violence that I had skimmed online correct? Would my children feel anything stronger than a vague desire to change the channel on this fairly uncomfortable scene?
I considered my older son, who had taken on the responsibilities of pet care with the typical and varying amount of enthusiasm of a nine-year-old boy; from excitement to boredom; from determination to annoyance. When the first rat died, I worried about his reaction; all the time he had spent cuddling and petting something that was just alive yesterday and now was gone. But, he is more practical than dramatic and adopted a stoic sense of appropriate but succinct grief; the emotional equivalent of politely removing one’s hat for a moment of tribute to a fallen, unknown hero, before easily changing the subject to something cheerier.
My five-year-old, still deeply rooted in a ‘monsters under the bed’ phase, lingered on the gruesome possibilities of our rat joining the army of the undead. “Will he be a zombie?” he wanted to know. He was interested in the process of digging the grave and wanted to watch. I worried about his morbid curiosity, and my mind flashed forward to his inevitable serial-killing future and subsequent trial during which it was revealed his grave-digging proficiency was directly related to my early influence.
I wavered on what level of fervor should accompany my final discourse on the topic, which I was saving for the backyard funeral. I was caught somewhere between ‘My GOD, he’s dead, Jim!’ and ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ How could I both comfort and clarify on a subject that was not only distressing and mysterious, but was such a personal stumbling block for me? I worried that whatever I said was the wrong answer and would set my sons on a path of anxiety and fear.
I recalled when I was about ten, I had a particularly severe case of strep throat. Before my official diagnosis was determined, there were other opinions thrown around. Perhaps I had the flu or pneumonia. It seemed serious and it was suggested my lungs be x-rayed. Sitting anxiously in the waiting room, I looked up at my mother and asked, “Am I going to die?” Unaware of my train of thought, she looked at me seriously and answered, “Yes, you are.” Obviously, she meant ‘some day’, which she apologetically explained later, but it was the definition of a poorly-timed lesson on reality. What I NEEDED to hear at that moment was, “No, you’re going to be fine.”
Ultimately, I decided to avoid delivering a definitive death diatribe – and not only because I didn’t have one – and focus on what I thought my sons needed at that moment instead. For my practical son, I suggested he pick out some rocks as headstones and inscribe appropriate tributes to our departed pets. I allowed my kindergartner to watch the burial, but was secretly relieved when he decided to turn away at the last moment. We all shared funny stories about the rats and focused on their lives as much as possible. Unfortunately, I’m sure there will be other opportunities to have such discussions; but I’ll take as much time as I can get.