Processing Death

My husband and I knew that the day was going to come fairly soon when our son’s pet rat would die. Domestic rats only live for 2-3 years and ours was just over 2. The last two weeks saw dear old Nibbles (or ‘Nibs’ as we affectionately called him) lose a lot of weight and begin laboured breathing. He was unable to maintain any body warmth and stopped grooming and eating in the last two days. Today I decided to take him up to the vet just to make sure that what were seeing was in fact old age and not something we could help him with. The vet confirmed our suspicions but informed me that his breathing really was so laboured and such hard work that poor old Nibs was just not having a good time at all. He would probably last for only a couple more days, but did I really want to see him suffer like that? No I didn’t. So I made the decision then and there to euthanise him. My son was at school and I figured I would tell him that Nibs passed away during the day.

The first thing I had to deal with this afternoon when I picked my son up from school was the fact that he had been very naughty at school today, his first full day at the normal school. Bummer, but not wholly unexpected. Especially since he told me this morning that he was planning to be naughty so that they wouldn’t make him stay at school for the full day. Hmmmm…..

Next I told him that I had some very sad news to tell him. Then I told him. He cried straight away and I picked him up and hugged him. When he had settled down, I put him down and we started walking home. What came next was very unexpected.

Son: “Mummy, When you said you had some very bad news for me, I thought you were going to say that because of my behaviour at school today, you were going to throw out all the lollies in the cupboard.”

Me: Slightly shocked. “Oh. Well I’m sorry that the news I had for you was so much worse than that sweetie”

Him: “No, that would have been really bad news to me because I really like lollies!”

Ok, so I guess I didn’t really know just how much he likes lollies before! Good to know!

I had asked the vet to place the rat kind of ‘nicely’ in a little box which I took home as I know very well the morbid fascination my son has with things and that he would really really want to see Nibbles’s body.

So when we got home, I showed him straight away. I explained that Daddy was on his way home early so that we could all bury Nibs in the backyard and have a little funeral for him. Naturally he picked the rat up and snuggled his face into him and had a good cry. He then proceeded to perk up and start planning the funeral, while carrying the stiff rat around in his hand in much the same way he used to carry him when he was alive! I fought very hard not to take it off him or tell him to put it down because I figured he probably needed to have that final contact to really believe that Nibbles was gone.

Every now and then he would look at the stiff little body and re-lapse into crying. At one stage he actually said,

“I wish I was dead too so then I wouldn’t have to feel so sad!” Turning to me with very serious eyes he asked, “Can you cut me in half so that I die and then I can stay with Nibbles?”

Me: “No sweetheart, we would be too sad and would miss you too much.”

Him: “Well, I wish that you would kill me, and then Daddy would kill you and Havoc and Moppett and them himself and then we can all be dead together!” The only answer I could give that was to shake my head and give him a big hug…while trying to avoid squashing the now rather stiff Nibs.

Anyway, we buried Nibs this afternoon in a lovely tasteful ceremony where I read out a sweet goodbye speech including all the things we would miss about Nibbles. As I read it all out, my son put Nibs in the hole Daddy had dug (specifically and strategically in a spot in our garden which we do not plan to renovate as per our son’s instructions!), I was trying very hard to prevent the giant white puppy from either eating the paper I read from or getting his muzzle in the hole and taking Nibs body. It was all very somber and sad, but quite sweet. It was a lovely afternoon, warm and sunny. We piled on the dirt and then put a little piece of sandstone (rescued from a pile at the side of our house) on top which had Nibs’s name engraved on it (hastily, by me before the ceremony).

We then spent the next hour trying to prevent our son from returning to the little mound to dig Nibs back up because he wanted him back and…

“don’t want him to disintegrate! (think he meant decompose) I just want to take out his organs and stuff because those are the bits that get smelly, and fill him with fluff and keep him forever! Or keep him now but then after I’ve gone to university and learnt all about how to make robots I can make a robot Nibs that will be even better than the real Nibs because he’ll even be able to talk!”

We managed to distract him by offering him the choice of what he would like for dinner and telling him he could choose anything he wanted… yes even Mcdonalds. He chose…..sandwhiches!?! Good boy 🙂

And so now after many tears and troubles getting to sleep and lots of hugs and kisses and back rubs, he is finally asleep. I really hope he feels better in the morning poor thing. I guess it is really important for kids to have pets to give them some idea of what death means and what it looks like, and to understand that it means you no longer have that person or animal with you once it happens.

He did ask me at one point today what a soul was, and thank goodness he accepted my answer of “it’s what makes you, you. It’s what makes you alive when you don’t count your blood and organs and stuff like that. It’s the thing that people love about you.”



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