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Children and Grief

Every night when my little cousin Alvin says his prayers he concludes, “And thank You, Lord, for my turtle that died.” This is hardly a typical way to end a prayer, but I can never hear it without being touched.

When my cousin Andrea's children (they live across the street from us) were old enough for pets, they began the inevitable accumulation of puppies, finches, kittens, lizards - and Abner, the turtle. I frequently served as the family baby-sitter, as I still do, and I shared Andrea's hope that keeping pets would teach the children patience, responsibility, kindness - qualities that would help prepare them for life. But being around the children has made me realize that pets can do even more. They can help a child face the very difficult problem of death.

People instinctively try to shield their children from death, the great unknown, the thing so shrouded in fear and mystery. (Even some Christian parents do this, though surely the symbol of the cross should remind us that death cannot - should not - be something we try to push from our consciousness.) The day I found the little turtle lying so small and cold in his little box, my first impulse was to hide him and tell Alvin that his turtle had gotten out of his box and crawled away into the woods. I even thought about trying to catch another turtle and replace the one that died. I remembered that the turtle Alvin had caught was the first pet he had ever owned. And he loved it dearly.

While I was trying to decide what to tell him, the problem was taken out of my hands. Alvin came in from playing outside and ran to see his beloved turtle. He came running to me, carrying the pitiful little brown body, and cried to me to “fix” his turtle.

I tried to help my youngest family member learn this first hard lesson of life, that even his tall, bearded cousin Stevie could not fix everything. This situation could only be accepted, not changed.

We buried the turtle in the backyard. Later we talked about how it would become a part of the earth, of the yard, of the trees and flowers, and that in that way he would still be with us.

His face pensive and earnest as only a child's face can be, Alvin asked, “But where is the real turtle? Where did he go?” Already my little cousin was asking a question that has puzzled mankind for centuries.

I knew what he meant by “the real turtle” – the bright, beady eyes, the curious motion of his plodding limbs, the awkward yet appropriate symmetry of his armored body - all the living things about the turtle that Alvin loved. I tried to help him to see that the “real” turtle would live on in his memory, and we could always talk about him and remember him even though he wasn't there to touch anymore. The turtle had a purpose on earth, as every living thing does. He had been there to eat insects that harm our gardens, and he had been there to bring delight to human beings.

As we patted the soil over the small grave, Alvin suddenly smiled and said, “Well, anyway, I had my turtle.” He didn't know it, but he had taken a great leap forward in understanding that nothing in this life is ours forever. He had leaped forward in understanding how to be grateful for the privilege of loving, even if only for a short time.

Alvin has had many pets since the turtle, some of which, I must sadly say, met with untimely deaths. After the first death, the death of the turtle, I told Alvin's parents that they should encourage the children not to remove creatures from their natural habitat. But the children have gone right on acquiring other pets nonetheless. And Cousin Stevie, their favorite baby-sitter, has been on hand when some of the creatures died.

I have sometimes heard parents, even Christian parents, say, “I don't want my child to have a cat or a dog because It might be killed and then my child would grieve.” This puzzles me, for grief seems to be a natural, normal emotion. I'm not sure we have the right to deny children the right to experience it. We might just as well deny them the right to be angry, to feel fear, to be disappointed. We would certainly have to keep them from hearing the Bible being read, for the Bible abounds in sad stories. Assuming we could coddle a child to such an extent, we would surely stunt his emotional development. Loving widens and heightens the heart. Sadness and disappointment, unpleasant though they are, make us a little quicker to know sympathy, a little more ready to love again. The Christ we adore and strive to imitate is the One who overflowed with compassion for those who were grieving. And He proclaimed that those who mourned would be comforted.

Coming from a large family, I know that people are never closer than when they try to comfort each other. Experiencing the sadness of the death of a pet provides a reason to give and receive comfort, a reason to draw together in understanding. The death of a pet can show a family reservoirs of strength and faith in the face of loss. (You do not have to be a child to know how grievous the death of a pet can be.) Alvin's parents, accustomed by now to the inevitability of pets in the home, and to the inevitability of the death of pets, do not replace a pet immediately. I agree with their view that rushing right out and buying a replacement seems to cheapen the child's emotions. Not too long ago their cocker spaniel, Scud, died. I was present when my cousin Andrea explained this to her children.

She said, “There will never be another Scud, because Scud was his own special self. Someday we will get another dog, but he won't exactly replace Scud. We will always have a special place for Scud in our hearts. But we will love the new dog just as much and will have just as much fun with it.”

I tell my little cousins about pets that I have had over the years, including Bernardo, the blue-headed parrot that could whistle a dozen tunes. My pet stories usually end with “Finally, Dorsey died,” or “The little lamb grew up, became a sheep, and finally died.” Somehow this reassures the children that death is a natural event, that biting, bitter grief eventually changes into gentle, mellow memory.

It is not easy to tell children that death is part of the natural, normal processes of the world. We adults have too many questions of our own about death. It was and is one of those taboo subjects we prefer not to think about. And though children are constantly exposed to the formerly taboo subject of sex, especially in the media, they are not exposed much to real death and the very real grief that accompanies it. But, fortunately for themselves and for adults as well, children have a way of speaking of the unspeakable, of shoving into the light the things we would prefer not to discuss. In discussing death with my young cousins I have found that I have clarified my own thinking on the subject.

As Christians we believe that those who belong to Christ will live with Him in heaven. We have no such assurance about our pets, though I am sure many sensitive animal lovers like to think their beloved pets will be with them in the new earth. The death of pets can remind us that, though animals and humans have different destinies after death, they have one thing in common - they pass from the sight of those who remain alive, and those who remain no longer possess them as they were. We are reminded that nothing in this world is ours to possess forever, though having once loved something, we never really lose it completely.

My little cousin Alvin still closes his prayers at night with “Thank You for my turtle that died.” He loved that turtle, still misses him, still remembers him, but is not bitter or angry. We should all join Alvin in thanking God for the turtle that died.

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