Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Daddy!! Something’s wrong with Max!!” Erin’s face was a mask of anguish. “He’s making sounds I’ve never heard before…and he’s laying wrong!”

Erin’s guinea pig Max, the first pet that was all her own, was clearly not OK. The vet confirmed an upper respiratory infection the next morning, dispensing a little medicine and not much hope.

“Guinea pigs are prey items,” he said, introducing me to a colorful new term I was glad Erin didn’t hear. “They don’t handle stress well. But sometimes the medicine works. He’ll either get better quickly…or he won’t.”
Erin held him all evening, cooing and stroking and sobbing. In the morning, he was gone.

When Erin’s heart breaks, it takes every other heart in the room with it — and her heart is as broken now as I’ve ever seen it. I know when her sadness crosses into heartbrokenness because the inside ends of her eyebrows turn upward like little tildes. It kills me. I can weather her sadness, but when the eyebrow tips head north — well, I hereby warn her future significant others to keep those eyebrows smooth and flat.

Still, I know the loss of Max, as eyebrow-creasingly painful as it is for her, is an important experience for her. Pets can contribute, however unwillingly, to our lifelong education in mortality. Though we don’t buy pets in order for kids to experience death (with the possible exception of aquariums, aack!), most every pet short of a giant land tortoise will predecease its owner.

The deaths of my own various guinea pigs, dogs, fish and rabbits were my first introductions to irretrievable loss. At their passings, I learned two things Erin is learning now: how to grieve, and just how deeply we can love. They certainly helped prepare me for the sudden loss of my father. It didn’t make the loss itself any easier, nor did it shorten my grief, which continues to this day. But the grief didn’t blindside me in quite the way it would have if my father’s death had been my first experience of profound loss.

When we looked into the cage Thursday morning and saw that Max was still, Erin screamed, then did the precise opposite of what I would have done: she flung open the cage, grabbed him, hugged him to her and wailed.

I’ve never had this kind of equanimity with dead bodies. I recoil from lifelessness. When Opie, my own dog of 13 years, died ten years back, I nearly paid someone $300 to remove his body from the yard. When (for lack of $300, and no other reason) I did it myself, it took all of my personal steel. Ever since I stared at my dead father, I just can’t bear the recognition of what’s no longer there.

Erin hugged Max’s little body to her for an hour and keened. She stroked his fur and touched his teeth and gently rolled his tiny paws between her fingers, all the time whispering Maxie, Maxie. Please wake up.

Then came a monologue both stunning and familiar — that ancient litany of regret, guilt, and helplessness:

I wish I had given him a funner life. He didn’t have enough fun.
Do you think he knew I loved him?
I should have played with him more.
I wanted to watch him grow up!
Do you think I did something wrong? I must have done something wrong!
I want to hear his little noises again.
It isn’t fair at all. it isn’t fair. Things should be fair.

She sang in a concert at the end of the day and was all smiles for two full hours — then lost it again when we returned home. So it’s been for two days.

Even our dog Gowser, who always had a special fascination with Max, has spent hours staring into the cage, then pacing, then staring again, whimpering quietly with confusion.


We buried Max in the backyard this morning under a metaphor of falling yellow leaves. Erin placed him in the shoebox on a layer of soft bedding. She put his water bottle to his lips once, twice, three times, convulsing with tears. She added food pellets near his head, like an ancient Egyptian preparing Pharoah for the journey to the next life. Flower petals, then Max’s favorite toy, and at last — this nearly did me in — she carefully dried her tears and placed the tissue in with him.

We talked over the grave about what a lucky guy he’d been to be born at all, that a trillion other guinea pigs never got the chance to exist, to be loved and cuddled like he was. She liked that.

Experiencing loss and regret has one undeniable payoff — it can make us appreciate what we still have. It’s no coincidence that Gowser has received more love and attention in the last three days than ever before.

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.