“Why can’t we just bury Sophie alive?” The question came from my five-year-old, Aidan. I had just explained that our ailing elderly cat, Sophie, would die on Tuesday, and that we would then put him in a cardboard box and bury him in the backyard. Aiden’s question made me gasp. I had to remind myself that this was his first experience with death and that he had to be taught about it, like anything else. So I explained that one kind of death—in my lap, assisted by a vet—was humane, while the other—suffocating under soil—was not.
Sophie was a blue cream Persian, my first and last designer cat. As a kitten, he was so fluffy that even the vet mistook him for a girl. The friend who gave me Sophie had assured me that all blue creams were female. On the third visit to the vet, the doctor looked under his tail and said, “I’ve got bad news for you.” “Worms, right?” “No,” he said, “You’re going to have to change the name.” But I didn’t, because by then both Sophie and I were accustomed to the name.
Over time, our kids learned from Sophie how to love a pet and the valuable lessons of how to be responsible about feeding, respecting, and care-giving. Now they were learning about death, and I was learning how to teach a child about death.
On Sophie’s last day, before Aidan went to school he crouched down to pet him lovingly and said with a smile, “Bye, Sophie! I hope you have a good time dying!” I cringed but held back my criticism. He doesn’t know what words to use, I thought. I gave him more appropriate words: We’ll miss you. You were a good cat. We love you. May you rest in peace.
After school, Aidan insisted on seeing Sophie’s body. In our rain gear we trekked out to the garage in the dark. I put the cardboard Amazon.com box holding Sophie on the floor. Immediately Aidan smiled and shouted, “Hi, Sophie!” and reached out to pet him. His long gray fur was still familiarly soft, but his body was stiff. “Sophie sleeping,” said Julian, my two-year-old. Yes, Sophie’s sleeping. “See?” I said. “He’s not moving.” They said good-bye to Sophie, and we ended up burying him the next morning, a stormy December day, before the sun came up. Each boy threw a handful of dirt onto the box in the hole. My husband and I cried, but at their ages, the boys didn’t have the same emotions. We’ll miss you. You were a good cat. We love you. May you rest in peace.
It never ceases to amaze me that children ask questions only if they are ready to hear the answers. They are incredible self-regulators of information. For example, I had to tell why the vet was coming, but not how the vet was going to help Sophie go to sleep. Or where Sophie’s spirit went. Or what a soul is. If Sophie had died last year, Aidan wouldn’t have had so many questions. If Sophie had died next year, Aidan would have had more questions. Julian had no questions.
From Sophie my kids learned something about how to talk about death, something about saying good-bye to a much-loved pet, something about why bodies can’t go on forever. However, they are still much too young to fathom how final death is, or how much it can hurt loved ones. Later that month, when Julian saw an empty cardboard box in the hallway, he asked, “Sophie in there?” “No,” we said. “Sophie’s gone.” “Sleeping,” said Julian. “Yes, Sophie’s sleeping,” we said. Aidan, meanwhile, cavalierly tells his classmates, “Yeah, my cat died. He was old.” I wonder when it is that we humans develop emotional attachments so deep that a pet’s death feels like your heart is being pulled out of your body. I know with our next pet the questions, emotions, and lessons will be different—but just as poignant—for all of us.