On the weekend, one of my daughters’ pet chickens did something particularly inconvenient: it dropped dead. Overnight, it went from being a hale and hearty hen to KFC for worms. She didn’t even do us the courtesy of acting sick first. I was therefore forced to explain to my daughters on the spot that “Patty” wasn’t a member of the family anymore. Instead, she was food.
Now, my daughters have already steeled themselves to the inevitability of death. In their short lives they have experienced the passing of family members — both young and old — and consequently have a better grasp of mortality than most kids their age.
In fact, they barely batted an eyelid after discovering her twisted carcass under the house. They just wanted to help with the digging.
Nevertheless, I found it difficult to convey to them that Patty wasn’t around any more. Just how do you put this sort of thing into words? Are you supposed to give a speech? Hold a mock funeral? Invite relatives around? I suppose it depends on how valued the pet is. A chicken falls somewhere between gold fish and annoying auntie, so I didn’t put too much effort in. A cat or dog would be a different story.
I ended up mumbling some crap about how Patty was a good chook and then we all patted the earth down. Within minutes, they were all happily playing like nothing had happened. No harm, no fowl. Or so I thought.
Later that night, my five-year old got a bit teary in bed. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was sad because she was going to die one day. DAMN YOU, PATTY! That stupid chicken’s death had opened a can of (grave) worms.
Using an old Lifehacker tactic, I explained to her that human lifespans keep getting longer thanks to advances in medical science. By the time she hits 70, they may have cracked the secret to eternal life. Hey, it’s possible.
This speculative optimism seemed to calm her, but it was a half-truth at best. I’m sure there’s a better explanation out there. With any luck, I’ll have it nailed by the time my toddler starts asking about death. But I’m probably going to need some help.
How did you explain the death of a pet or family member to your kids? Have you taught them about mortality? How did they take it? Share your tips and pointers in the comments section below. Doubtlessly a lot of parents who are reading would like to know.