You never know what the really significant events in a child’s life are likely to be, let alone when they are going to happen. But when they do occur there is always the challenge of the unpredictable questions that these events provoke. With this in mind let me try to describe a sequence of events and questions that arose during a weekend at Mill Grove.
It was a relatively straightforward Friday evening and we were having our evening meal with its typical mixture of news, jokes and spontaneous conversation. And then into the kitchen she came. There was no mistaking the deep feelings of sadness and loss, as tears welled up in her eyes. What was not apparent from where I was sitting was the reason for these overwhelming emotions. She cried on my wife’s shoulder.
After the meal I slipped into the lounge where she was sitting to express my sympathy and to allow her to tell me what was going on, should she feel like doing so. Without hesitation she told me how she had gone to tend her ailing hamster. (It had been suffering from conjunctivitis and had not eaten for several days). She had taken Fudge (that was its name) into her hands when it simply stopped breathing. Her pet had died while she was holding him. She was crying again as she recounted the story.
Later in the evening she brought the little creature to my wife and me in a cardboard box explaining that she couldn’t sleep with the dead body in her room. We assured her that we would look after it, and then wondered aloud what she would like us to do with Fudge in the morning. She told us that she would like us to bury it, and we suggested that it might be appropriate to do so where other pets (rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and so on) had been laid to rest over the years. It was a shady spot in the orchard between some fruit trees.
Coping with Loss
That arranged she went quietly to bed, ready to go to work the next day. My wife and I mused over her feelings. Whereas previously with traumas, loss and separation in her own life, and with the deaths of previous pets, she had rarely expressed her feelings, now something had changed. We were in touch with genuine feelings of loss. (In case you hadn’t gathered it, the place of pets in the lives of children is important for all sorts of reasons that we won’t go into here, but especially because, all things being equal, many children experience death for the first time when a pet dies.)
The way the experience of loss and sadness is handled is critical in that it sets a precedent for future attachment, loss and grief. Where children have not been in touch with, or able to express their jumbled, strong, deep feelings when confronted by human loss, then the death of a pet provides an opportunity to revisit such experiences, often unconsciously at first, and to re-establish connections with parts of their past and inner world which have been cut off and put into “cold storage”.
Coping with depression
Life in a residential community like Mill Grove, however, does not come in isolated individual packages: it is a rich blend of the personal and social. The same day that Fudge died, I was talking with a family whose oldest son seemed to the professionals with whom he had come into contact to be depressed. He and his family spent several hours with us including lunch, and after some time we found ourselves chatting about the earlier periods of his life. He had spent the first seven years living in another country. I said that this was really interesting to me, not least because I too had spent a similar period travelling to and from India and as a result I sometimes I felt a bit like a stranger in my own country and culture.
Little did I know what effect this would have on the boy! He began to cry as he told me that no one else in England was interested in his story at all. It might just as well not have happened. What’s more, he felt that peers and adults laughed at him, sometimes to his face, but more often behind his back. He was different from them because he had lived in another part of the world with a whole range of other experiences in a part of the world where he felt free to be himself. Now he felt undervalued and constrained and as if he was an outsider living in a foreign land. It was not difficult to feel his depression as he spoke quietly and gently, with strong feelings deeply repressed.
We made some tentative plans for meeting up again and then, as happens, others arrived. Hours later I managed to get to my desk to deal with emails and post. I think I had dealt with it all by 12.30 a.m. when I was more than ready for a bit of sleep. Saturday morning seemed to arrive extraordinarily quickly and I realised that I was going to spend the morning with a young boy who had been excluded from school. Each Saturday we work together, partly because I need some help, and partly because it gives him an opportunity to be alongside an adult, to be together and to learn side by side.
I pondered overnight what to do about the hamster (my wife was tied up with several other people) and felt on balance that I would suggest to the boy that he might like to help me bury it. When I spoke with him I suggested two other options so that he had a ready opt-out. He was immediately intrigued by the death of the hamster and asked to see it. I opened the box and removed some of the cotton wool until the little creature was clearly visible. Its eyes were closed and it was in a foetal position, looking to me “comfortable” and to him, “very peaceful”.
The circle of life and death
We collected some garden tools and decided on the best spot for the burial to take place. It was as we were digging, thankfully in frost-free soil, that he asked me completely out of the blue, and without any awkwardness, “Do animals go to heaven?” We carried on with the task in hand as our conversation took many twists and turns. After we had buried Fudge we placed a piece of wood where there would have been a headstone had it been a human being, and then had a hot drink (he made it for me). I don’t know how it came up, but we started talking about the food chain of plants and animals. I asked whether the chain might be better considered as a circle, since every species depended in some way on all the others.
So we were not far off his original question. Now it so happens that I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the theology of creation and eschatology, and had been surprised how much reference there is in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures to the whole earth and all the things that live on it. (Traditional interpretations have tended to be rather anthropocentric.) I said that it was inconceivable to me that there could be anything that I could think of as heaven (we readily agreed that no one knew what heaven would be like), without animals, birds, bugs and the rest. It would be incomplete. And I couldn’t imagine heaven as incomplete or partial. In fact, if animals were missing there would be a sense of loss and separation. It would be as if life on earth had not been taken seriously enough. You can see that his question had really got me thinking!
Then a couple of local boys came round. They helped us with the clearing of some leaves, and we started kicking a ball around. The conversation about heaven had ended for the time being as abruptly as it had started. That’s the way it is with children. But the question is still swimming around in my head along with all sorts of feelings about separation, loss and depression.
I will probably write my February In Residence column from Bolivia where I will be lecturing on an emerging new theological perspective known as Child Theology. As you no doubt have gathered, I am blessed with plenty of raw material for both columns and lectures! I do read books of course, but the stuff of everyday life is a rich source of material, mostly of the sort that prompts questions rather than conclusions. Last month I wrote that I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else at Christmas. And I hope you can see why I feel so very privileged and blessed to be living at Mill Grove the rest of the year too.