Last weekend Grizzly and I noticed that one of our hens was looking less than healthy. We consulted the hen book and as with most things hen-related, the answer seemed to be human dispatch. However, she seemed comfortable enough and I didn’t have the heart for it. She sat on my knee for a while and we fed her some mealworms and she perked up a little. She obviously wasn’t cured but we decided to let nature take its course. After a couple of days it was obvious she was taking a turn for the worse and it was clear she was going to die.
Grizzly and I realised that although she’s a hen and in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal, this would be the boys’ first experience of death and therefore the situation was going to require some careful handling.
Both boys had, at around about the age of 3 or 4, been through a phase of asking a lot of questions about death. I think it’s probably a normal phase, where children have the realisation that death is permanent. The idea of death seemed to play on Little Bear’s mind for a while because he was very interested in whose parents were whose e.g. that granny is daddy’s mummy and he had noticed, or Big Bear had pointed out, that Grizzly didn’t have a daddy. That raised the obvious question of where he was and in the very direct way that children do, Big Bear had announced to him that he was dead. We then had to try to explain heaven etc. I kept thinking that Little Bear had got it but then at very random points he would say “where’s yours dad, he’s dead?”. He then went on to invent a flying car that he was going to use to get to heaven and bring Grizzly’s Dad back. It was very sweet and did show an intrinsic understanding about relationships and missing people. It did however suggest that he wasn’t really getting the death thing. In this situation I’m quite ok with blissful ignorance for as long as possible so didn’t try to correct him too much.
Little Bear must have been continuing to ruminate on the idea as he then started to ask whether, once Grizzly and I were dead, he would go back and live with his foster carers! I wasn’t really sure if this was because he wanted it to happen (!!) or if he was just checking that it wouldn’t. The whole situation is made more complicated by his difficulties with language so I have tried to say that generally people die when they’re really old and have white hair so it is not something he needs to worry about. However, I have tried to point out that grandpa has white hair and is very much alive. I have also pointed out that Supergran is 86 and really old and also very much alive!
Anyway, so you can see why I was approaching the imminent hen death with some consternation.
In the event it was Big Bear who was really upset. I told him that I thought she would die before she actually did, so that he could say bye to her and hopefully be a bit prepared for it. Each evening he sat outside with the hen on his knee, cuddling her and crying into her feathers. He kept telling me how sad he was. I tried to acknowledge that but say that she seemed so settled and that stroking her was making her happy and that he was doing the best he could to comfort her. We kept her away from the other hens for the last couple of nights and made sure she was snug with a hot water bottle etc. Big Bear had lots of thoughts on her burial and that we would need to get flowers for her.
In the end, when she finally passed away (I was glad because the poor thing hung on for quite a bit longer that we thought and was quite comatose), both boys just took it in their stride. They painted a cardboard box coffin for her and then decorated a big stone to put on top of the grave. They helped Grizzly bury her under the hedge and I obliged with a tub of pansies.
I’m glad that we involved them. I think their reactions have shown it was the right thing to do. However, I don’t know if it has done much to help Little Bear understand it all. How do you explain to a small child, especially one with language difficulties that the hen has died and gone to heaven, yet there she is, in plain sight, sitting (although rather stiffly) in a box right before you? I started trying to say that her body was still here but her personality had gone to heaven. After Little Bear had said “what?” for the 5th time, I pretty much gave up. It’s not like me to be at a complete loss but the concept is just too abstract. I think I’ll leave him in blissful ignorance for as long as possible.