An Early Lesson In Loss

I find myself struck, once again, by the profundity with which small children can handle the serious things of life. The most recent example of this in our home was both heart breaking and faith restoring in the same moment.

Little people can form big attachments. Whether it is the lovey they’ve slept with since they were too small to remember, or the footy pj’s they’ve only been wearing since the weather turned chilly, they throw their whole being, without reserve, into loving someone or something because they have no reason to not trust. They are open and vulnerable. Incredibly strong but weak enough to need protection. Their naiveté is both an asset and a liability that can lead to hurt. And each time the end result is hurt, they inch a little closer to adulthood. These early lessons that teach them that love and loss sometimes go hand in hand are key building blocks that determine whether their adulthood will be clouded with cynicism or embraced by hope. What a powerful witness we bear to these extraordinary little lives! What a grave responsibility to guide them well.

My eldest son, Aiden, got his little black cat, Charlie, when he had just turned one. He is four and a half now and doesn’t remember a time when Charlie was not a special part of his life. They grew up together, really, and Charlie would let Aiden drag him around like a rag doll in a way that he wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. When Aiden was diagnosed with allergies and asthma, Charlie went to live outside (or in the garage on particularly cold nights). But if Aiden was outside, you can be sure that Charlie was not too far away. They were buddies.

When the family went to dinner two days before Christmas, that all changed in the blink of an eye. Charlie had been hiding on top of the open garage door and became entangled on the outside when the door came down. We were called by our neighbor who was working with Animal Control to take care of the situation before we came home to discover it. I cried through most of the dinner but I did my best to hide it until we could decide how and when to tell Aiden. The timing couldn’t be worse, but we decided to trust him with the truth and let the happiness of Christmas follow this sad news rather than the other way around. After putting Owen to bed, we sat down with Aiden and told him that his little friend wasn’t going to be with us any more. That he had died.

He did not lose control or freak out. He was clearly shaken, but he stayed calm and asked lots of questions. “But, where did he go?” The animal control people took his body, but no one knows exactly what happens to the life inside the body when it stops living. “Will he ever come back?” No, baby, he won’t come back. But the time he spent with you will always be part of your life. “What if we got another black cat and named him Charlie?” Another cat would be a new relationship, a new adventure, but it would not be Charlie again even if we gave him the same name. “What did the animal people do with his body?” They will bury it in the ground and, even though his life ended, it will help other things grow. “Do we have a picture of him?” We found a picture and he slept with it and carried it around for days. The next morning he tried to explain the whole thing to his one year old little brother while shoving the picture in his face. “Charlie DIED, Owen! He’s gone, gone. He can’t come back.” Owen ran around squealing, as always, with no idea what his brother was talking about. Aiden desperately wanted him to take the news as seriously as he, himself, felt it. He came back to me and said, “Mama, Owen won’t listen. He doesn’t care.” He didn’t love Charlie the same way you did, baby. You had a special relationship with him, so it’s OK that you care more. And Owen is a too little to really understand.

Now, we can talk about Charlie together without it being sad. We remember the good stuff – like how he was the only cat I’d ever known that would go for walks with his family; or how he liked to stalk and eat cicadas in the summer, no matter how hard Aiden tried to rescue them. Aiden always smiles when we talk about him. He is a brave boy with enough love to withstand even this early lesson in loss. I am so proud of him. I may not be able to shield him from the hurt, but I can help guide him as he weathers it. And he can help me learn to weather it better.

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