If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably familiar with my least favorite, family pet, Butterscotch.
What started off as enthusiasm for a cute and unique, (non-mouse) first-pet for our daughter, quickly evolved into a loathing disdain for a too-fast-too-hold, quick-nipping-nightmare of a rodent.
The divide widened when my daughter—whose only chance to bond with her pet was by sitting in a dry bathtub together while he darted around seeking an escape root—lost interest in the weekly cleaning of his cage and then abandoned feeding him daily rations all together. Guess who got saddled with hamster duty?
DH and I selected this pet for two reasons: 1. because our daughter desperately wanted two mice and this was as close as we could come to a mouse without the tail and infestation issues; and 2. life expectancy for Robo dwarf hamsters is 1-3 years.
Well, ours made it half way. Last week, Butterscotch joined the Great Hamster Wheel in the Sky.
I knew his days were numbered when his usual hyperactive, nocturnal stirrings began slowing down. Then I noticed he was eating less and less of the hamster nibblets I put in his dish each day. But when I really knew death was soon upon him was when I noticed the patches of fur missing from his coat.
This was certainly a far cry from the spry, fluffy little pip-squeek we brought home from the pet shop two Christmases ago:
I wondered if his decline was a product of our neglect, his awareness of not being loved or merely the life-cycle of a dwarf hamster…regardless, declined he did until one night I heard no activity at all. I was afraid to look. I gave him until the next day to make his presence known but nothing stirred.
When I lifted his little purple, igloo shaped house off his nest, nothing emerged so I poked inside and found a bony, cold and stiff specimen.
Here’s where my faculties failed me.
Rather than break the news gently and carefully to his six-year-old owner, I thought I’d take the straight-forward approach and bring the wad of cotton, corpse and all, upstairs to show her in person.
The response I expected was somewhere along the lines of feigned indifference. What I got instead was utter lament. Immediately our daughter burst in to tears. Her reaction was akin to the loss of something deeply loved.
I felt terrible that my first response to finding Butterscotch dead was a twinge of joy and utter relief. Now I had to kick in to high gear, righting the wrong-approach I’d taken.
Immediately, I reminded her that he was old and wasn’t well; that he was having a hard time climbing his habitrail and had been slowing down. Then I asked if she wanted me to help her pick a special spot in our yard to bury him. I helped her find a little stone to mark his grave and together, we went into our garden, in a totally nondescript spot (hand-picked by his loving owner), we dug a wee hole and said a gentle prayer. In went our little rodent, over went the dirt, on top went the stone.
For the next four days, our daughter continued to talk about her lost pet and visit his grave, then we went away. When we got back she seemed to forget all about it, until she saw his cage still sitting on the shelf. I think his loss might fade quicker if I cleaned it out and put it away.
Do I think I handled this well? No. Should I have handled it differently? yes. But, for a child who had already witnessed the death of our beloved cat two years earlier and then the open casket viewing of a great-grandparent the summer before, I certainly did not think the loss of a 3-inch hamster required white-glove handling nor arming myself with a copy of the Rainbow Bridge. Then again, pretty much every aspect of parenting has taken me by surprise thus far so this was just one more for the list.
Butterscotch’s death has taken us from 5 pets down to four. Luckily, we still have Choo-choo the Beta fish and Rocket the snail along with our two fabulous new cats, Frisco and Charky.
I guess that gives me four more chances to get it right.
Have you experienced pet loss with a child? Did you handle it differently? Is it too late to make things right?