I have often thought that there should be a list for parents, ideally around their child’s second birthday, of all the difficult conversations that will no doubt happen in the future. Not to give directions on when or how to conduct them, but at least something to act as a thought-starter or prompt.
We’ve had a couple of these conversations in recent months. As Hannah approaches the senior end of primary school, she’s now had an introduction to The Facts of Life. We bought some books to help with this and she seems to have handled it pretty well. We had one hilarious moment only last weekend during Strictly Come Dancing. Jennifer Gray was a guest ‘judge’ on the show, and during one of her painfully scripted comments, she was being very effusive about a female participant, prompting Rachel to laugh “I reckon she fancies her”, to which Hannah immediately responded “so is she a lesbian?”… Cue barely suppressed hilarity from Rachel and I, with Hannah explaining which one of her friends had told her about lesbians…
About 10 days ago we started noticing that the elder of our two (dwarf lop) rabbits seemed to have lost some weight, and that some of their food wasn’t being eaten as it normally was. A couple of trips to three different vets later (that’s a whole other ‘Reckon’…) left us in the terrible position last Friday of knowing that Biscuit had at the very least some kind of infection in his jaw, but more likely a bone condition that was pretty much irreparable. Antibiotics might have eased the infection, but in all probability the problems with his jaw would recur. There was only one practical option when we considered his welfare (and, in all honesty, our finances), and it wasn’t a very happy one.
I’ve been relatively sheltered from death in my life thus far. My grandfathers died before I had any profound memories of them. My grandmothers died more recently, but that aside, I haven’t had to deal seriously with loss and grief. My parents are both only children and in pretty good health. My in-laws are older and have more health problems, but they’re still active and lively.
It’s clear to me that pets can serve any number of roles in a household: companionship, protection, friendship and affection, teaching children responsibility, but also helping them to learn about loss and grief.
Biscuit was Hannah’s pet, while Eleanor also has a slightly younger rabbit named Honey. So far Hannah (9) has responded to the situation quietly. She seems to have internalised her feelings, and been fairly reflective. Eleanor (nearly 6) has been more visibly upset; perhaps she’s less able to withhold her emotions, she can’t help but let them out. We discussed the reasons for Biscuit’s illness, the options that were available, the likely quality of his life and what could happen. We discussed that we would ‘leave him with the vet’, which at first elicited the heartbreaking question from Hannah that serves as my title for this post. We explained that it would be peaceful and quick, that his body would be cremated and his ashes can be scattered in a field where his spirit can run and play happily.
This seems to have given Hannah some comfort, and I practically wept on Sunday night when Hannah announced that she wanted to write a piece on the piano for Biscuit – “the first part will be sad, because he’s died, and the second part will be happy, for his spirit running free”.
Biscuit was 2½ years old: this came well before his time. The vet noted that he’s seen these jaw problems on other ‘bred’ rabbits. In effect it’s a genetic deficiency that natural selection would eventually eradicate in the wild. We still have Honey, and we also have our 14-year-old cat Polly.
It’s likely that both of these animals will die in the next few years, so there will be more death in our household. Perhaps we’ll all be a bit better prepared, perhaps we’ll remember now to pay Polly and Honey a bit more attention. Perhaps this small sadness will prompt us to pay a bit more attention to the people who are dear to us, to enjoy the moments we have now.
As the song says, it’s later than you think…