Last week was a week of death, dying, coping, and learning for you. It was a rough week and you handled it like a champ. Better than most adults.
It started with the bird.
Captain and I found a small bird, sparrow, that was suffering from HBC (hit by car) related injuries in the middle of a field during a rainstorm. As this was our nighttime walk, you were home with your dad getting ready for bed. Instead of coming home and taking Captain’s leash off then going to get my PJ’s on, I asked you if you would let me take one of the cardboard boxes you were hoarding in your room.
I mean, you are still 4. There are boxes abound in your room. Your favorite is the one from the online bra shop I splurged to support the ladies and you keep tiny Pokemon in it. There are also toilet paper rolls and other recyclables in addition to Mt. St. Toybox. Every time I walk in there, I’m tempted with the idea of becoming a minimalist, but then look at my own office and realize that I can’t ever do that. You’re off the hook.
You gave me a box (not the bra box which I was hoping for so we could recycle when this was all over). We put a towel in the box, and then you said you were coming with me to the field. As you got your rain coat and boots on, I explained as best as I could that this bird very likely won’t make it. She (he?) was likely not going to survive the evening and she couldn’t stay in the rooms of the house because we have two cats and a bird dog. While we likely wouldn’t save her, she could at least stay in this box downstairs in the basement, away from the rain, away from predators, and if she happens to make it through the night, I could get her some help. I tried my best to impress upon you that her making it through the night was a long shot. You smiled and said, in the way you do:
“O.K!” Big grin and all. It was clear you heard what I was saying, but you didn’t understand what any of it meant. We got in the car, you held the box, we arrived at the field, and I could see her on the ground where Captain and I left her, breathing shallowly and pretty broken. As we approached, I could tell we were too late.
She wasn’t breathing.
I put on my glove and picked up her lifeless body.
I asked you what you saw.
“A baby bird. Wait, she’s bleeding?”
“Yes, baby. She was bleeding.”
“No, she is bleeding.”
“Kiddo, do living things breathe and blink?”
I didn’t fill in the rest. You curiously looked at her, with your head to one side and seemed to slowly piece it together. This sparrow was no longer breathing. This sparrow wasn’t blinking or trying to fly away. She was just…
As I held the bird and we talked a little bit about what death was, and how we help when we can, and help looks different in different situations, that sometimes we do our best and it’s just not good enough. We can only do what we can do in that moment. And in that moment, all we could do was put her somewhere that she could return to the earth and not be shredded by the Fisher Cats, a couple of feet from the walking path that you would likely pass by later in the week.
You offered to carry her and find a spot. I gave you my gloves. You commented on how light she was. You found the perfect spot under some leaves by the river. We laid her down, and we said a few words. Then we left.
I wasn’t sure if you understood what happened that moment on the field. I wasn’t sure if you got it when we walked with the empty box, clean towel still inside, back to the car.
I was sure you got it after I started the car’s engine when I looked in the rearview mirror, and you sat there silently, looking out the window with tears streaming down your face.
As we drove the few blocks home in the rain (fitting), you didn’t ask any questions. I asked if you wanted some warm milk and a show while we settled in for bed.
“And snuggles because I’m really sad.”
These were the first words you could muster in 10 minutes.
So we cuddled, drank warm milk and watched Sophia the First while you processed all of it.
And you did a great job.
A few days later, we found a picture of a bird my friend Rachel created. It was of a baby bird a cat attacked in her back yard but she was able to call an avian sanctuary to save it. I read you the story and showed you the picture. You seemed pleased to know that sometimes we can save something that is hurt, and sometimes we can’t.
Hours after seeing Rachel’s painting, I took you to your first wake. We talked about what you might see. There might be an open casket. There might not be. There might be an urn, which is a fancy vase. I told you about cremation and burials. We talked about how when something or someone is dead, their body is still here for a while. It’s like a house but no one is home.
It’s like there is a house, but the people who lived there just left one day.
It was an open casket wake. You were incredibly respectful and contemplative. I held you, told you the family chose an open casket so there was a dead person in the room. I asked if you wanted to see her, and you said yes. We walked over, you looked, and you watched how different people processed grief. While we didn’t know our friend’s mom, you seemed to understand we were there for our friends and that was meaningful. You then wanted to kneel like other people did. While we haven’t done the religious thing with you, I took you over and let you kneel. You asked what you do from there, eyes pointing up to the casket.
“You just have a thought. Whatever thought you like.”
And you did.
I found it quite fascinating that you wanted to go to the funeral the next day, and while we couldn’t go (I had to work and we only have one car), you were struck by the entire process. You were curious about what happens when people die. You asked if she would go in the ground like the bird, and I told you yes – but they would have a big hole and machinery to make sure she was buried properly.
You weren’t scared. You weren’t frightened.
You were brave. You were respectful. You gave support in the way you could to a friend. And, you asked a lot of great questions. I have no idea what I’m doing sometimes or how to handle these things, but you are a kid and if you ask, I’m going to do my best to answer appropriately. Sometimes I’m going to miss the mark (pretty much every question you ask from 12 – 18 will “miss the mark.” Sorry in advance!), but Dad and I will always do our best.
We love you.