By Kathryn Streeter
Today, a bird slowly died in front of my children. The impact against our sliding glass doors was deafening. Housebound by a winter storm, the kids and I quickly abandoned our hot chocolate in our rush to discover that a bright crimson cardinal had struck the glass. It now lay helpless in the snow.
Be honest and don’t construct a cover-up. What’s been seen can’t be unseen: I watched, helpless to intervene or make my kids unsee this tragedy. The suffering we were witnessing elicited, “Mom, let’s help it!” “Should we bring it inside and nurse it?” “What do we do?” “Poor bird.” Our 12-year-old’s large eyes were brimming with tears. Her younger brother couldn’t look away. I wanted as badly as my kids to watch this bird miraculously fly away. But the cardinal grew still and we, silent, mourning the loss of an innocent bird.
Show sensitivity and respect for their particular attachments: Unlike adults, children fall in love fearlessly, without baggage. Maybe it’s toys as much or more than the people surrounding them they cherish. In the case of my children, it was their stuffed animals—each complete with name and personality.
As enjoyable as it was for me to witness the creative powers at work in my children’s play, I knew that the depth of attachment would create a storm of trouble if any of these animal kingdom favourites were lost. After all, these were real as flesh and blood friends in my children’s world. On many occasions, we did come close to losing a stuffed friend. At the grocery store, in the airplane, on the sidewalk, silently fallen out of the stroller.
In every instance, the look of shock and pain in the affected child’s eyes was a small step into the brutal world, where fierce affection is often accompanied by sorrow, a pain equal to the love.
Validate their emotions: It’s not fair! My children had never before seen the bird that died in front of them. Yet, its death prompted a flood of tender-heartedness and compassion. I heartily agreed with them, that what happened wasn’t fair. But life isn’t either, something more appropriate to discuss later, after emotions had settled down.
My present task was to help them process and understand how to grieve, recover and bravely move on. I wanted them to be unafraid to continue loving, to grow attached again and open up to profound feeling and potentially, hurt.
Provide closure appropriate to meet the situation: Together, we forced open the glass patio door barricaded by snow. We squatted down around the bird. With the utmost care, we gingerly scooped it into a shoebox.
We headed to nearby woods with the box. I was last in the procession, with my husband in the lead, carrying the coffin. With hands jammed into coat pockets and shoulders raised to resist the cold, our hatted, hooded kids walked between us.
We took turns shovelling the earth to create a tiny resting place. Our daughter gently turned the box on its side. The quiet bird rolled snug in the tight, humble grave. We said, Goodbye, bird. It’s not your fault. You didn’t deserve to die. Very gently, we smoothed chunks of snow over our homemade grave.
Project a posture of steady hope: “It’s good we could give the poor bird a proper burial,” our daughter whispered.
It was good. Though it required great effort, it was the right thing to do. I was grateful she recognized this. At 12, she embraces life with open arms but along the way, she will feel life’s unfairness cut deeply when bad things happen to the undeserving, as she witnessed in this bird’s death.
With every crushing heartbreak, I hope she refuses to harden and withdraw. I hope she’ll guard her soft heart, and actively continue loving.
Share Your Ideas:
Among the many attributes a mother desires to stir up in her children is the capacity for deep affection amidst the possibility of pain, disappointment and loss. The cruelty of the world drives some people to wallow in bitterness, some to grow angry and jaded, and others to quit loving altogether. We want our children to grow big hearts, capable of affection and empathy in spite of the painful risks. The challenge is, how do we do this? If you have ideas, share them with other readers on twitter tagging @cityparentmag
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