Alas, poor Yorick: when a child loses a pet

The moment of discovery as  I stared at the aquarium was a moment fraught with conflicting thoughts:.   Yikes, is it dead?  Dead hermit crabs are kind of gross.  So that’s what it looks like totally denuded of shell!  When will it start smelling?  If I put it on the back porch will it freeze or get eaten by a raccoon?  Where is the receipt from PetCo?  What should I do with it?

What do I tell Mitzi?

“Swirly”, the larger of the pair of hermit crabs Mitzi received for her birthday four days ago, has expired.  I don’t know why.  It seemed okay, as far as hermit crabs go (I mean, geez, these creatures don’t do a heck of a lot).  My only experience with this animal is with the ones I’ve seen on the beach.  I don’t know how to care for a hermit crab.  I get a box, follow directions.  I don’t know how old or healthy the critter  is when I buy it.  The don’t come with pedigrees and papers, like my old Golden Retriever did.img_1346

Child wants crustacean, Mom obliges.  (To the right is a picture of Swirly with BFF, Bumpy, on the left.)

So here we are, four days later, with poor Swirly, stiff and out of his shell (the dead giveaway, pardon the pun).

I noticed its condition this morning, when Mitzi was at school.  I emailed Ray.  What to do?  I have to take him out.   Where to put him?  I can get a refund, where is the receipt?  Meanwhile, Ellie screeches, where is Poops?  (The crab’s alter ego.)    Now, do I have to explain to the three year old about death and heaven and whatever it is we want to say?  Can I just lie and say Poops, like Ellie’s momentarily lost stuffed giraffe (or stuffed kitten or stuffed dragon or whatever stuffie Ellie has misplaced that day), is vacationing with friends in the house somewhere?  I am not good at explaining death and loss.  Sheesh, I’m still flinching every time one of them mentions my grandpa, their Poppa Tony, who died four years ago.  They are still fixated on this.  They talk about him, miss him, listen to his records.   Mitzi made Grandma Mitzi a special Christmas presesnt because “she might be sad at Christmastime since Poppa Tony died.”  The all have special pictures of Grandpa in their rooms and are saddened when discussing family memories they were certainly too young or not-born-enough to have had.

But regarding my grandpa I can talk about my ideas of heaven, spirit, loved ones, and life.  About Swirly, the barely-here crab?  It’s hard for me to conjure words.

For Mitzi, though, the loss is as real.    She came home today bubbling with excitement, following an after-school playdate.  She wanted her friend to see her new pets.  Julia’s mom and I kept saying no — little sister is still napping up there, you are both too wet and snowy, it’s not a good time, let’s reschedule.  Eventually, we moms caved.  Up Mitzi and friend went, up I followed, to somehow excuse the absence of one of her new pets.

Needless to say hysteria ensued.  Poor Julia is probably traumatized by the sight of her friend receiving the news of a cherished pet’s death.  I hope her mom doesn’t send me the therapy bill.

We remember Swirly.  In the past six hours, Mitzi has drawn a picture of it (him? her?  Our pet-parenting was so short-lived I have no idea what gender poor Swirly was), asked me to print out some photos to bring to school for tomorrow’s first-grade class Sharing, mourned the corpse, begged to keep the shell, planned a memorial sculpture, said a prayer.  In all, a seven year old’s processing of the cycle of life.

Part of me worries.  If this is what she’s like with a static, non-cuddly four-day-old pet, what will she be like when our someday puppy ages gracefully and dies after a long energetic life?  When an aloof but still cuddly cat vanishes into the traffic glare one night?  How much more extreme will memorials be then?

Then, of course, I worry how she — or any of the kids — will react when we lose a person we cherish?  What then?

This is her first real loss, as small as it seems to me.  I have hugged her, rubbed her back, encouraged her expressions of grief and loss and love.  I give advice based on my own experiences (let’s remember Swirly and the good times we had) and hope that she will take a little bit of that when the losses are much larger.  Because they will be larger, some day, no matter what I do.  Some day she will grieve for something or someone far more important than a new pet.  I know that.  I can’t stop it.  But maybe by helping her mourn these small losses — no matter how cute or silly that seems (I mean, sculpture, indeed), I can help her prepare, in a small way, for what will inevitably come (though I pray those big losses are so far in her future I won’t be able to remember my name let alone whether or not I prepared her for grief).

Dear Swirly, our here-and-gone new friend, I did not get to know you and your wave-like shell and crustacean heart.  But you have helped us start a process that no parent wants to begin yet cannot escape:  preparing a child for the inevitable pain of loss.  For this I am in your debt.  Alas, poor Swirly.  I knew you well.  Sort of.

But please forgive me for not springing for the headstone and a backyard burial.  My 15-day Petco warrantee was a good one, if I can find the receipt.  I mean, you were a valuable 8 dollar crab.  We will remember you in our heart, if not our wallets.

And for her part, in the true style of a child, Mitzi enthused a little: “I want to come with you to pick out a new crab.  Let’s get a littler one this time.”

Kids.  They sure know how to bounce back.  And aren’t we a little in awe — and  a lot jealous?

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4 thoughts on “Alas, poor Yorick: when a child loses a pet

  1. Live and Death. A major and difficult concept for all of us to understand.

    You can teach your kids that death follows after a long life and that Swirly had a very good life and lived to a good old age. Which explains his size. A short memorial service should be had saying goodbye to Swirly and thanking him for the time he was with you.Then a small celebration of cookies and milk in his honor.

    A leason of life that we all need to learn but not to dwell on.

  2. Yikes! You could ask Checka for advice – she was about this age when Caesar died. Poor dog, he didn’t know he was coming into a family with a bag track record for pet longevity….) I think I was about 10 and Checka was 7. Lucky for her she was off at a cello lesson and Marcello (I guess about 13) and I got to help my dad bury the dog in our garden (mostly, I think, because he didn’t want Checka to have to see him and that dog was HUGE, Dad would have had trouble getting him into the ground on his own.) Good times….

    The thing that really puzzled me at the time, that I remember asking my mom about: why do we “bother” to love our pets if they are just going to die? Why don’t we just _not_ love them?

  3. Pingback: Another one bites the dust « A Mom’s World

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