Three cats and two gerbils - it's amazing tragedy didn't strike sooner...
My first experience of death was Guinea, the Guinea-pig. I was seven or eight. We'd just had an extension built and my parents laid his body out for us to pay our last respects, in Dad's freshly painted new study. In death Guinea looked different. We'd always joked that he didn't have any legs - just feet attached directly to his stumpy little log of a body; but he did have legs. They were stretched out and still. Thirty years later, the smell of wet paint still reminds me of that moment.
We buried him in the garden. We sang All Things Bright and Beautiful and we made a wooden cross to mark his grave. I thought of this first experience of death and the rites of mourning a few weeks ago, while I was wondering what I would say to my girls about Poppy when they woke up.
It was Dexter who did it. He's a proud and magnificent cat. He's getting on a bit now but - diabetic and almost entirely toothless - he's still got the killer instinct. We don't know how he got into the cage; we found the lid half off. At first we thought Dexter had got Poppy's life-partner, Ginger, as well - but I eventually found him quivering under the fridge.
We didn't tell the girls in the morning; we decided we'd get them off to school and then break the news to them when we had time to be together as a family. We felt it was important to let them see his body if they wanted to (yes his - when we'd told Ally and Stella they couldn't have one of each, they'd compromised by simply pretending that Poppy was a girl). This was problematic though because Poppy was a white gerbil and Dexter - red in single-remaining tooth and claw - had made rather a mess of him.
David - my multi-talented husband - proved to be a dab hand at laying out a body. He made Poppy a little silk shroud, with his head - mercifully untouched - peeping out of it. He looked peaceful. He'd had a pretty good life - all things considered.
I was surprised by how distraught Ally was; she sobbed non-stop for nearly two hours. Both girls wanted to see the body and I think that helped them to process what had happened and to understand that Poppy wasn't here anymore. I wanted to do a little committal ceremony in the garden but it was cold and rainy so the girls decided that, grief-stricken as they were, I could do the burial on my own.
As they processed their sadness, I was touched to see how they comforted each other. They also decided they wanted to focus their love on the living - poor, widowed Ginger. A solitary gerbil rattling around in a gerbilarium made for two. He got a lot of cuddles and pumpkin seeds. Unused to all this attention (he had been - to be blunt - the less favoured gerbil), I don't think it's completely fanciful to say that he seemed to blossom into a more agreeable rodent (by which I primarily mean he stopped biting quite so much).
The kids persuaded me to buy two new baby gerbils to keep Ginger company. This proved to be a near-catastrophic mistake - but that's another story...
If you'd like me to help you to create a unique funeral or memorial ceremony for your pet, or to write a prayer or poem to help your children come to terms with any kind of bereavement, please have a look through my website.