Eight years ago, I was at a
fundraiser in the Pacific Palisades at the home of the fab director David
O'Russell ("American Hustle," "Silver Linings Playbook") with my then 2-and-a-half-year-old. A name drop, I know, but it's relevant, because I'm not sure I would have been suckered into what happened next if I wasn't such a
diehard fan. Mr. O'Russell's then wife, Janet, greeted us as soon as we came to
the door. Suspecting Gabriel would be bored after polishing off a handful
of cookies, she quickly whisked us through the master bedroom and into the bathroom
where she had—wait for it—two tiny bunnies.
"I bought them for David, but
it turns out he can't stand them," she told us, as Gabriel watched the furry
balls leaping over wet towels.
"They need a home with
kids. I'll give you a cage and food for a year. David will be so happy to
know they went to such a nice family."
Half an hour later, we were
heading east on Sunset Boulevard with a bunny cage and a trunk filled with hay
pellets. "You did what?" Tod, my husband asked me, as Gabriel stared through
the wire mesh at his new friends in the back seat.
The bunnies lived in the
breakfast nook for a month, until they were big enough to move to a cage on
stilts in the back yard. Gabriel named them Hakuna and Matata from "The Lion
King." He would take them out, put them in his lap and pet them daily. I
gave them carrot tops and lettuce leaves to snack on. Everyone loved
watching them jump around the yard. Until one day, I went in the house to put Gabriel down for his nap while they were getting their exercise. When I came
back, out Matata was lying on her side in the grass.
A little dog had snuck in
under our fence and did what dogs do to bunny rabbits. It was a
Medea-like moment for me. I literally fell to my knees next to her and
wept. For about two minutes. Then I realized I hadn't thought
through the death part of a household pet and had no interest in explaining
mortality to a post-nap toddler.
It was 4 o'clock on a
Sunday afternoon. I remember, because I immediately started calling around to
pet stores in search of a black and white, floppy eared bunny rabbit. In
the moment, nothing made sense to me other than replacing the rabbit with a
close enough facsimile and praying Gabriel went with it. By the time I
found one, I had 20 minutes to get to the store before it closed, which I did. My husband took Matata away (to this day I don't know to where) and the new
bunny was in the cage faster than you can say, "Mommy dodged a grief bullet."
Since then, I've realized
there are other ways to handle the death of a family pet, particularly if your
child is under the age of 5. After that, you're pretty much in for a talk
about the cycle of life. Which, according to anyone who knows anything
about children, you should keep very simple: Only answer the questions they ask.
For those first few innocent years, here are a few options for handling this
family upheaval. The first three work best when the child isn't around for the end.
If you just can't bear to witness your child's broken heart, or if you need to distract them immediately after, call Grandma and/or Grandpa and have them take your child out for ice cream.
1. The Switcheroo
Still my personal favorite, it involves replacing the small animal/fish before
your child notices. Despite experts agreeing that you should never lie to
your child, this remains No. 1 for not prematurely overwhelming your baby
with the seven stages of grief.
2. Call of Duty
If you go with No. 1, and your toddler figures it out, congratulate yourself for having a very bright child. In this case,
explain to your tiny genius that the new friend is Cutey Pie's sister or
brother and that the Mommy needed Cutey Pie back. But she promises his sibling
is just as lovable.
3. Play the exhaustion card.
Explain to your child that Cutey Pie was exhausted from so
much playing all the time (and not eating right—why not use it
as an opportunity to land the importance of a well-balanced diet?) and
needed to go somewhere to rest for a while ... maybe a long while. Then
promise to take them out and get them a more energetic pet ASAP. Note: If
your child brings it up again, you might also have to draft a short letter from
the director of the small-pet rest home.
4. Let the grandparents do it.
If you just can't bear to witness your child's broken
heart, or if you need to distract them immediately after, call Grandma
and/or Grandpa and have them take your child out for ice cream. With great
wisdom (and great amounts of sugar) in their arsenal, Nanny
and Poppa can soften the blow by telling stories about the "old
country" and all the pets they've loved and lost. Then, they order their
grandchild a much deserved second scoop and give them hugs. The only
downside? If it happens more than once, your child might start to associate
ice cream with death. This will not work well if Grandpa
was in the military and has more of a "Suck it up, pets die, just be glad it
wasn't your mother," sensibility. If that's the case, stick with No. 1.
I'm kidding! Pets are
awesome! Who else wags their tail when they see me? And, despite the fact that I
am not willing to let go of avoiding the death conversation with the preschool
set, I do respect the expert opinion not to tell your child that the creature
went "to sleep" or that you had to have the pet "put to sleep"—or any
connection to sleep and death. Children have enough things swirling
around in their minds at bedtime. No one wants kids thinking that they could possibly
fall asleep forever if they close they eyes at sleep time.