How do you explain death to a child when you understand so little about it yourself?
Last night I found myself struggling to come up with an easy way to broach the subject with my daughter, a three-and-a-half year old who may understand death only in the most abstract sense. We have two pet rabbits, Luna and Galinda. Luna is over ten years old, senior age for a bunny, and recently tested positive for a deadly bacteria that affects rabbits in a quite drastic way. Her health has been going downhill in the last two weeks to the point that the lower half of her body barely works. Each day I’ve been scared to find her dead. As my daughter was going to bed I went to check on the rabbits and found Luna, thankfully, alive and well eating some hay. Our other rabbit Galinda was dead.
Life never takes the path you expect. Galinda was young, healthy, and happy and we had no indications she had any problem with her health. Beside the sadness of finding your pet dead, this was even more tragic as it marks the third of Luna’s mates that she has outlived. As rabbits are fundamentally social creatures this seems a cruel twist for one rabbit to outlive her mates three times over.
Now I had an agonizing decision. My little girl was already in her pajamas and ready for bed. Do I bury Galinda and try to explain it to her the next day, or do I give her a chance to say goodbye? I hovered in the hallway outside her room while my wife read her a book in bed, a beautiful tableau that I was about to ruin. I’ve always wanted to be honest with my daughter, to respect her intelligence and explain things the best I can, yet this would be a new and potentially scarring situation for her. Tell her or shield her? I really only had one choice.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you guys but I need to tell you something. Galinda’s dead, I just found her, and I want you to have a chance to come say goodbye.”
We all went out to see her and my girl crouched down and pet her fur.
“Oh dear, that’s sad,” she said. “Now Luna is going to miss her and say, ‘Oh no, where’s Galinda?’”
I was most, most impressed. We spoke about where Galinda would go. I said we’d bury her in the garden, and my daughter wanted her to go in the grass because she’s a rabbit. She stroked her back and ears again then my wife took her to bed. Perhaps because she wasn’t as attached to the rabbits she didn’t understand the emotion of the moment, but she did understand the practical part: Galinda was gone, she wasn’t coming back and we would put her body away. There was so much more I wanted to explain but we kept it simple. I buried Galinda under a flowering bush favored by the hummingbirds and butterflies and couldn’t stand to look as I tipped the first shovelful of dirt onto her pristine white fur.
I still don’t know how to explain death to a child. Maybe it’s like this: every creature has two parts, a body and a life. Life is what makes you breathe, eat, laugh and love. Your body is the crude vehicle for your life and some day your life will leave. Nobody knows where it goes and some people hope it’s to a beautiful place to rejoin all lives that have ever been.
I know that my daughter, at a level deep and inscrutable, understood something about life and death that maybe I don’t, for when I told her Galinda died she asked,
“Is she smiling?”