On her third birthday our little one gained and lost her first pet. We both gave and (unwittingly) took it from her.
She used to ask to see the fish every time my husband took her to town with him so we decided to give her a fish for her birthday. But it was a last minute decision and the fish was left in my care while we had an enforced nap before the party and, to cut a long story short, the fish did not make it through the day.
To be honest we all nearly didn’t make it through the day, but for the fish the day came to a definitive end. Our newly promoted three year old spent the day crying either because she didn’t want a birthday, didn’t want a party and didn’t want anybody there or crying because she wanted another birthday, another party and for her friends to come back.
It was after the final climactic meltdown of the evening that she noticed that the fish was ‘lying down’ and I really didn’t want to have to break it to her on her birthday that I had accidentally killed her new pet, so I told her that it wasn’t well and that we would get her another one. But she wanted to keep the one that was lying down so I cut my losses and told her what had happened.
We had come across dead animals before in the street (snakes), the park (a ground dove), and in the back garden (rats), but not one that she might feel a closer connection with. Recently we’ve had a spate of animal deaths and discussions about death.
When she has been afraid that someone will pick up her up and take her away I’ve always told her that Mummy and Daddy won’t let anybody pick her up if she doesn’t want to be picked up and we won’t let anybody take her away.
Then we came across a flightless baby bird in the park and rescued it from the abandoned cat who now lives there. A few days later we found its tiny lifeless body at the foot of the tree and after heavy rain only feathers and bones identified it.
I explained that the bird had died because it had fallen out of its nest and couldn’t fly and its parents couldn’t take care of it. Later that day I heard her playing out the situation with her toy animals. “A coruja morreu. A mamãe é o papai dela não podia cuidar dela.” (The owl died. Its mummy and daddy couldn’t take care of it.)
I wonder how strong the conscious or subconscious links are in her mind. It is no wonder that she worries that someone will take her away when it is clear that mummies and daddies can’t stop some things from happening. Like death.
There is an almost constant exposure to death here (mostly animal death thankfully). My mother-in-law keeps chickens (and we had some chicks) in the back yard. She also has four dogs. Over a period of weeks the dogs have fatally maimed or killed eight chicks and two chickens.
The latest killing was yesterday – the bantam our little one was given by her great-grandfather just before Christmas. I have yet to tell her.
It is difficult to explain why the dogs would want to kill all the chickens and why they would be allowed to do that.
And helping her through that while also dealing with my own grief and anger, and grappling with the smallness of those things in the light of the abuse of the powerless by the powerful on a global scale, is easily overwhelming.
As you can see, I don’t have any answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts or more about how you’ve approached this with young children.