“Daddy! There is a rabbit swimming in the fish pond!” My six-year-old was looking out our kitchen window and down to the small fish pond in our backyard. I had been too lazy to buy fish for the little pond and had been debating about whether to drain it before it became a resort for breeding mosquitoes. Before I could stop her, my four-year-old daughter ran to the window to witness the event, too.
As I looked out the window, I realized that my daughter had missed a crucial detail. The rabbit was not exactly ‘swimming.’ Unfortunately, the creature had jumped or accidentally fallen in, and the high brick sides of the pond had effectively trapped the rabbit.
I’m a psychology professor who specializes in grief. Just like I assume auto mechanics talk to their children about engines and orthopedic surgeons talk to their children about the human skeleton, I talk openly with my children about death. I strongly believe in giving children information about death – in an age-appropriate way – and using proper terminology. I do this because I believe that early lessons about death influence how children express their grief and form the foundation for how they deal with later losses.
My belief in providing clear and accurate information about death had already been put to the test. We had euthanized our two Labrador retrievers within the previous 18 months. I didn’t want my daughters to think that the dogs had ‘gone away to a farm’ or had run away. I also wanted to give them an opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings. Therefore, I gave my children a thorough explanation of the process of euthanization of animals and a brief overview of the cremation process. They knew that our Labs’ ashes were high on a shelf in the office in urns, and we planned to spread them at the dogs’ favorite swimming hole once the weather warmed a bit.
Children use play to understand their world. After our discussions about our Labs, my children began to “play” with euthanizing their stuffed animals and other death rituals. They used terms like ‘cremation,” “ashes,” and “euthanization” like other kids talk about Sesame Street and Elmo. I could only assume that my oldest daughter was repeating some of this in her kindergarten classroom; I was expecting a call from the school counselor at any time.
But the rabbit created a new situation. My daughters had said goodbye to our dogs, but decided that they would not go with me to see them be euthanized. Now I had a deceased rabbit floating in the little fish pond and they were curious. If I was going to stay true to my philosophy of providing information and being open, then I was going to need to allow my children to understand what was happening. Being curious, they wanted to be involved.
(I should note that my wife seemed all too happy to let me deal with this. I seem to remember something like, “You’re the expert” and her quick retreat back inside.)
Once I explained that the rabbit was, in fact, dead – the questions began immediately:
- What does ‘dead’ mean?
- How soon will the rabbit wake up?
- Why did it die?
- Will it get hungry?
The three of us agreed that we should bury the rabbit. We chose the dry creek bed at the back of our yard and proceeded to pick the perfect spot. The girls helped dig a large hole; I gently placed the rabbit in the hole and covered it with dirt. Given that the girls had not been emotionally attached to the rabbit, there were no tears.
Over the past few years, the topic of the rabbit has come up again and again. As we’re pretending to be Star Wars characters tromping through the forests of Endor (walking through the dry creek bed), the girls will remember the spot and ask about the rabbit.
- Is the rabbit still dead? (Me: “yes”)
- Can we dig it up? (“no”)
- I still remember when we buried it. (me too”)
Looking back I probably could have distracted my daughters with a Disney video and quickly disposed of the rabbit without them watching. But I suspect that would not have ended their questions. Although it was challenging to come up with answers to their questions (and some questions I still don’t have answers for), I feel good about how things went.
As a result of involving them in the burial, my daughters learned:
- It is OK to talk about and ask about death
- We take special care of the deceased
- When living things die they don’t continue to breathe, feel hungry, or feel pain
These lessons have made later conversations about the death of great-grandparents and other death-related topics much easier.
I would encourage parents and other adults to use opportunities like “swimming rabbits” to begin discussions about loss and death. I firmly believe that much of the reticence to talk about death has come from lessons learned early in life. How many people have experienced a loss, but quickly learned that “we don’t talk about it”?
Children have the added challenge of not understanding many basic concepts of death including:
- Death is irreversible and universal
- Death ceases biological functions
- The actual causes of death
Teaching them about these concepts early on can help reduce their confusion, fear, and discomfort with death-related topics and personal losses.
If you want more information about how to help grieving children and teens, you can purchase my ebook: Helping Children & Teens – Before & After the Funeral on Amazon.