This morning I found my 5-year-old son sobbing alone in his room, looking out his window, standing in a puddle of tears. This is not just a play on words; there was an actual puddle on the windowsill. Our family’s pet rabbit passed away yesterday, and our kids are absolutely, understandably gutted. This is their first time experiencing the death of a pet. My husband and I are both incredibly sad as well, but in losing a family pet for the first time, nothing could have prepared me for the double-whammy of heartbreak that hits when you stack your own grief on top of the pain of seeing your children’s grief.
Rabbits are supposed to live anywhere from 6 – 12 years, and our rabbit, Dexter, was two days shy of his 12th birthday when he went to the Rainbow Bridge. He lived a good, long life, and we’ve known for the past week or so that he was approaching his time. After doing some Googling and calling the vet, it was clear that his days were numbered. I tried to gently break it to the kids that their bunny was dying, and that we needed to spend the next few days keeping Dexter comfortable and really letting him know that we love him. They processed the concept of death reasonably well in theory, understanding that the bunny wouldn’t be with us forever, but I had no idea how a 5 and 7-year-old would process the actual event of a pet’s death. They were of course, utterly devastated.
The silver lining from this week is that both of my kids have been home from school with runny noses and head colds, which – admittedly, did not feel like a silver lining at first. In the New Normal of our COVID-19 world, we can’t send our kids to school with even a sniffle. So, like parents everywhere, I have spent the week in frustration with trying to balance my work and caring for the kids. However, just as our rabbit really started to decline a few days ago, it was a great opportunity for the kids to spend extra time with him. They picked dandelion leaves from the backyard, Dexter’s favourite treat, and even though Dexter was not really eating or drinking much, the kids were able to hand feed him a few leaves while I snuggled him with a blanket. It warmed my heart when my son brought him one of his lullaby toys to soothe his bunny, and when my daughter nuzzled his ears with love and compassion.
I experienced a lot of guilt after Dexter’s passing, because the sequence of events did not go down as I thought it would. Yesterday was a day wrought with First World Problems and COVID Fatigue; our wifi was down and I spent the better part of the day navigating a broken customer service process to try to get it fixed so I could get some work done. The kids were getting cabin fever and were at each other’s throats, and I was a mess of irritation. By around 3 p.m., I said “kids, we need to spend some time with Dexter now.” I pulled Dexter out of his cage, wrapped him in a blanket, and he was clearly agitated. We spent some time petting him and trying to keep him comfortable, but his body temperature was high, and my instincts told me that he would be more comfortable in his cage. I gently placed him back in his cage, and hoped that he could relax.
I took the kids out to walk the dog around 5 p.m., and encouraged them to pick some more dandelion leaves for Dexter. Each kid collected a handful of dandelion leaves, excited to go home to give their bunny his favourite treat. My husband was outside on the porch when we returned home, and I found myself having a socially distanced chat with a neighbour. The kids went in the house by themselves to feed Dexter his treat, but they soon realized he wasn’t moving so they asked my husband for help. My husband realized Dexter was gone just as our daughter said “Daddy, did he die?!”
All of this was playing out in the house as I was saying goodbye to the neighbour outside. As I approached the driveway, I heard the kids crying on the front porch. I figured they were arguing over something since they too are experiencing COVID Fatigue, but as I got closer, I could see their tears and overwhelming sadness. My husband looked at me and said that Dexter was gone. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment of processing Dexter’s passing while simultaneously witnessing the kids’ pain. They each cried heartbreaking, real tears for most of the rest of the evening as my husband and I tried to plan a proper bunny funeral.
I beat myself up that the kids were the first to see Dexter’s lifeless body. I beat myself up that nobody was home, and that Dexter died alone. My husband quickly reminded me that most pets prefer to be alone when they pass and they know when it’s their time. That Dexter probably chose his time deliberately when all four of us were out of the house. I know that ultimately, losing a pet is a good teaching moment for young kids about life and death, and I know my husband is absolutely right about when and how pets choose to pass away, but Parent Guilt coupled with Grief is a tough pill to swallow.
In tending to the kids’ grief, I thought back to 21 years ago when my dad passed away. My nephew, who was five at the time, looked at his grandpa’s wooden coffin and remarked that “they put Poppa in a treasure chest.” I remember to this day thinking that was a beautiful sentiment through the eyes of a child, and from that day forward, I have called coffins Treasure Chests. My husband grabbed his tools and started building Dexter a Treasure Chest made of cedar. We placed Dexter’s bowl in the Treasure Chest, and put the dandelion leaves in it that the kids picked for him. My son asked if we could put a toy in Dexter’s Treasure Chest, so we put a little jingle bell attached to a stick for him. My daughter made a card with the whole family on it that said “I love you Dexter, I miss you. I hope you have a good time in our backyard.”
Today, we buried Dexter’s Treasure Chest in the backyard, and had a little bunny funeral. The kids were feeling a little better by this point, with the understanding that their bunny was on the way to the Rainbow Bridge in a Treasure Chest. My daughter told him how much she was going to miss him, and my son said “He was a happy bunny, and he loved ‘rugula” (Arugula). I couldn’t have said it better. Kids give better eulogies than adults.
Dexter was the first pet my husband and I brought into our little basement apartment 12 years ago. When we moved into our first house a year later, we got a German Shepherd puppy who became Dexter’s fierce protector and friend for 11 years. Our dog is visibly sad today, too. Dexter saw us through three homes, three renovations (at one point we called him Reno Bunny), and two children. When you bring a pet into your home, you do it with the knowledge that they won’t be around forever, but they will bring your family joy and unconditional love. As sad as our kids are today, they know that Dexter did just that.