My son's hamster died today. Or, more accurately, I signed the paperwork to allow our vet to euthanize him. It is 2:11 in the morning and I am still too upset to go to bed, too upset to put a formal end to the day. I cleaned out Snowy's cage for the last time tonight. Little Brother was quite regular about cleaning out his pet's cage, but he wasn't up for it just yet. So, I wiped down the little yellow food bowl, the funky looking neon purple plastic sleeping hut, the green wheel that spun regularly in my basement. And I cried.
How do you explain death to a child? When our vet wanted to discuss options for our hamster - there weren't really any, but he wanted to make it look like there were, in case I wanted to spare my son the stark reality - I told the vet that my eight-year-old would take the news better than I would. I was right.
Little Brother calmly digested the fact that his hamster had an inoperable tumor. That the gigantic bald patch on his pet's hind end wasn't the result of anxious biting - it was a monster tumor, an aggressive tumor, a cancerous tumor. And he said to me, in such a very grown-up voice, that if his hamster was going to die, he didn't want him to die in pain.
We agreed that a lethal injection was the most humane thing to do, even though I am still up twelve hours later because I can't bear to think that I signed away the life of a living thing. In my 40+ years of life, I've never had to do that before. When I lost my first baby to miscarriage, it was one of the most horrible experiences of my life. But I didn't have to make a choice about it - it just happened. And when my sweet dachshund suffered a fatal seizure, I actually refused to put her down. I took her home, wrapped in a blanket, so she could die in my arms feeling safe and loved. She always hated the vet.
But this time, I had to sign a paper saying that it was okay to kill our pet. And even though I believe it was the right thing to do, it still hurts.
Snowy fought with the vet tech during the injection and actually managed to bite a finger. Immediately after, I snatched him up and held him on my chest and stroked him. A white dwarf hamster, he was so small that I could only use two fingers to stroke his back. He didn't try to bite me; he just settled into my touch. I knew he trusted me to do what was right by him. I sincerely hope that I did.
After the hamster died, the vet showed me the tumor's massive infrastructure. I actually found it somewhat comforting to look at Snowy's death from a clinical perspective. There was no doubt that our pet was terminal. An aggressive cancer, the tumor had large blood vessels feeding it. It was nearly one-quarter of the hamster's size and had already started to displace his bodily organs. Strange how he looked so fine from the top; if you didn't flip him over, you might not have realized - as we didn't - that he was sick. But he had chewed fur from one paw, so there were clear signs of distress.
Throughout the process, I tried to involve my son. I made sure that he spoke with the vet, but once I realized the severity of his pet's condition, I broke the news to him privately. I let him see me cry. I asked him if he wanted to be there when Snowy died and he said no. I told him that was fine, but that it was important to me that I hold Snowy when it happened. Then I hugged my son and kissed the top of his head and told him how very sorry I was. We agreed to have the vet cremate the body. Neither of us wanted to carry a dead hamster home to bury.
After we left the vet clinic, my son and I went for a long walk. I asked
if he minded if we threw out the new portable pet carrier that we had
just purchased for this trip. He said no, it just made him sad
to look at it. I threw out the metal box with vehemence and felt
vindicated when it made a resounding clank in the trash can. We
talked about death and the unanswerable question of why pets and people
have to die. We didn't come to any definite conclusions.
I don't have any answers to share or advice to give on how to teach children about death. Grief is a vulnerable, powerful, and intimately personal experience. For me, I touched back on old losses, as well as one I expect to experience soon. I'm not sure exactly how my son felt, but I knew that I was doing something important by walking alongside him, openly and honestly, and sharing the experience.