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In the final section of my nonreligious parenting seminar, I offer suggestions for helping kids engage mortality gently but honestly. Treat death as a natural part of life. Take casual opportunities to talk about it before a loved one dies. Talk about the life cycle of insects/animals/plants, then gradually connect to us. Read Charlotte’s Web and Tuck Everlasting. Take a walk in a cemetery.

Our current pet, practicing for the end
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Get a pet.

I’m not suggesting you get your kids a pet so that they can experience death, but it’s a nice side benefit.

That one always gets a gallows chuckle in the seminar, but I actually mean it. Now given my choice, I’d rather completely spare my kids any exposure to death ever, secondhand or firsthand. It would also be nice if they’d fart money, but they continue to disappoint.

Likewise with banishing death. Wish all you want, our kids will experience profound, painful, permanent losses in their lives. My job is not to pretend I can change that, but to help make that difficult reality as manageable as possible for them — and shielding them from the pain of heartbreaking loss is not the way. That may be easier on parents and kids alike in the short run, but it sets them up for much greater pain down the road when it’s Grandpa or Mom or (FSM forfend) me crossing over to the other side. Of the grass.

My convictions were put to the test just over a year ago when Erin’s guinea pig died. I blogged at the time:

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. Still, I know the loss of Max, as painful as it is, 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, most every pet short of a giant land tortoise will predecease its owner.

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…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.

maxWe 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.

A few weeks ago — a year later almost to the day — Delaney (8) got a guinea pig of her own. Erin asked to go with us to the pet store to help Laney pick out the toys, the food, the bedding. She led Laney up and down the aisles. “Max really liked timothy hay,” she said. “You’ll want to get some of that. Ooh, and look, there’s that little wooden thing he liked to chew on!”

As we stood in line at the register, Erin looked up at me. “I’m kinda surprised I’m so okay with all this,” she said. “I mean, I still miss him a lot, but it’s not so…you know…” She pressed a palm to her chest and closed her eyes, then looked up again. “You know?”

I knew. I reminded her of something she said a few days after he died. “You thought it would never stop hurting, remember?”

She nodded. “But it did. Time is amazing.”

And there it is. In addition to learning how much she could love and how much she could grieve, she learned that no matter how much a loss hurts, it will eventually hurt less. So next time — and there will be a next time — she’ll have a comfort she didn’t have before.

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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.