I visited my sister Robyn and her three young children in Australia recently. They live in a hot, remote, and beautiful part of Western Australia called the Kimberley, defined by its ancient landscape, red dirt, and boab trees. I don’t get to see my two nieces (Kailey, 5, and Millie, 3) and my handsome young nephew Sam (almost 8) very often, so it was a rare time for us to be together. While I was staying with them, however, a sad event occurred: Hopscotch the family rabbit died.
Hoppy had been in the family for a number of years, alternately crabby and affectionate, depending on his mood of the day. In general, though, he was a good rabbit, and gave the children an opportunity to be responsible as they attended to his physical needs: feeding, giving water, cleaning the hutch.
On occasion, Robyn would remove Hoppy from his hutch and put him in an old, rusted-out, flat-bottomed boat on their property. This would give Hoppy a chance to hop about and stretch his legs without risk of him escaping into a dingo’s jaws. On the day of Hoppy’s demise, he’d been placed in the boat with a bowl of water and an open hutch for his comfort. He’d done this many times without incident. We left to go on a boating tour of nearby Lake Argyle (which, fun fact, contains enough water to fill nineteen Sydney Harbors). It was after dark when we returned from our trip, and we immediately put the kids to bed.
“We should go get Hoppy”, I said, once the children were tucked in. Together, Robyn and I went out to the boat. Hoppy was lying in some leaves, very still. Unusually still. Immediately, I thought, “That’s one dead rabbit, right there”. My sister took a little longer to convince.
“Hoppy?” she called uncertainly.
Predictably, Hoppy made no response.
“Hoppy?” Robyn called again with mounting alarm. She nudged him. He did exactly what you’d expect a dead rabbit to do. Robyn’s hands flew to her mouth.
“I think he’s dead”.
“I think you’re right”, I agreed, nodding.
“I can’t believe he’s dead!”
I nodded again. “He certainly is dead”.
We silently regarded the furry, motionless body.
“How do you think he died?” Robyn asked.
“Hmm…. heatstroke? Snakebite? Old age? Who can know?”
We stood there, a little shocked, staring at the earthly remains of Hoppy the rabbit. Our thoughts turned to the same topic: what should we tell the kids?
“Maybe we should tell them he ran away”, Robyn ventured.
I thought about this for a while. He ran away… how would the children respond to that? Maybe they’d think he’d return at some point. Maybe they’d want to go looking for him. Maybe they’d be worried for his safety, imagining him being attacked by dingoes or being hungry or scared. Maybe they’d become anxious that other animals – or even people – would run away, too.
“I think we should tell them he died”, I said.
My mind turn to the Montessori training and the suggestions I’d received about how to deal with this type of situation. True and brief. Compassionate but not pitying. I was already writing the speech for the children in my head. I delivered some of it to my sister, and explained how this was a sad but useful opportunity to acquaint the kids with the realities of death and dying. Eventually we agreed that we’d tell the children after school the next day.
In the meantime, we went to work committing Hoppy’s corporeal form to the earth from whence it came. Which is to say, we dug a hole and buried him.
The next day dawned and the children didn't notice Hoppy’s absence prior to departing for school. When they returned home the next day, and were enjoying an iceblock on the veranda, the moment seemed ripe to break the news to them. Robyn and I had sketched out a plan, and I felt confident delivering the story.
“So… there’s something that we have to tell you”, I began. “Something quite sad”.
Three pairs of eyes looked at me. They continued to eat their iceblocks, but I had captured their interest.
“Do you remember Speckles the dog?” Speckles was Robyn’s beloved dog who had died a few years earlier. Sam and Kailey were old enough to remember her.
“Speckles was a good dog. She had a long life, and had a lot of fun. We loved her very much. And when she got old, she died, and we couldn't see her anymore”.
Okay… here it comes.
“Last night when we came home, it was very late and you all went right to bed. Mum and I went to the boat to get Hoppy and put him in his hutch. But when we saw him, we found out that he’d died”.
“Hoppy was dead. He wasn't moving. He wasn't playing or breathing”.
Sam’s bottom lip started to quiver. He was older, and he was following along in a way that the two younger girls weren't. I forged ahead with the story.
“Mum and I were very sad that Hoppy had died. We knew we needed to bury his body, so we dug a big hole over near the windmill. Then we put his body in the hole, and covered it up again”.
“Can we see him?” asked Kailey.
“No, honey. We can’t see Hoppy anymore. He’s dead. That means we can’t see him again. He can’t move or play or eat or breathe anymore”.
The children took this in. They were quiet, but not devastated. Millie ate her iceblock without understanding. Sam became thoughtful. Kailey appeared to be mentally chewing this over, as well.
“It’s sad when pets die, because it means that we can’t see them anymore. But we will always have happy memories of them. If you like, we can each take a stone and put it on Hoppy’s grave, which is the place where he’s buried. You can have a nice memory of Hoppy anytime and anywhere you like, but sometimes it’s good to have a special place to go to remember him. And his grave is a special place”.
There was general agreement that stones should be placed on Hoppy’s grave. We all gathered some stones (mine being much larger and heavier to deter any enterprising dingoes from grave-robbing), and we journeyed to Hoppy’s final resting place.
Kailey looked down at the mound of dirt, her stone for Hoppy clutched tightly in her hand.
“I want to see him”, she said, a little sadly.
“We can’t see him anymore, Kailey love. He’s dead, so he can’t play with us or be with us anymore. But we can remember some nice stories about him. What was your favorite thing about Hoppy?”
She considered this. “He was soft and nice”.
“Yes, he was, wasn't he? Hoppy was a soft and nice rabbit”.
I put my big stones on Hoppy’s grave. The children did the same with their smaller rocks.
“Bye, Hoppy”, I said, modeling the finality of the moment. “You were a soft and nice rabbit”.
“Bye, Hoppy”, Kailey echoed.
We stood there for a few minutes until our shoes were discovered by the large and aggressive ants that had emerged from a nearby ant nest. We stamped our feet. This was still the Kimberley, and life continued, uncaring that Hoppy did not.
We walked back to the house. “That went well, I think”, said Robyn. I agreed.
There had been no hysterics, no real tears. I had been very cautious to avoid using any euphemisms for death. I didn't say Hoppy was sleeping. I didn't say that he’s passed away. Euphemisms are for adults, who understand the real meaning behind the words. The children needed to know that dead meant dead: not breathing, not moving, not playing or eating or thinking anymore. Dead meant never coming back.
Robyn informed her husband, Mat, about Hoppy’s death that evening. Mat is an electrician who works at the Argyle diamond mine about 200 kilometers (124 miles) away. Millie, the youngest, was all too happy to inform Mat about Hoppy.
“Hoppy got dead!” she reported enthusiastically. “We dug a hole and buried him!”
For a very young child like Millie, the event was easier to accept. Hoppy was here, and now he’s not. And it makes for a good story to tell Dad, apparently.
The next evening at bedtime, Kailey became very sad as the true impact of Hoppy’s absence hit home. She cried, lamenting both the loss of Hoppy and the loss of a pet. In between shuddering sobs and back rubs, we remembered all the things we loved about Hoppy: how soft his ears were, how it was funny that he would attack the hand broom, how he would nuzzle your hand while you held him. Kailey went to sleep with fond memories of Hoppy in her dreams, even as her tears dried on her cheeks.
Hoppy had a long and happy life, and there’s no tragedy in dying peacefully at the end of such a good run. With death comes sadness and loss, but also the realization that it’s part of a very natural cycle, one in which we ourselves will someday participate. By offering to the children a true, brief, and compassionate story of Hoppy’s death, we laid the groundwork for a healthier attitude to death: what happens to the one who died, but also what it means for the living who remain.