I still consider myself a non-animal person, but my mother-heart opened up last winter and found a spot in it for the animals my son so dearly loves.
This last winter, we had a spell of record-breaking cold temperatures. I will always remember this particular bitter cold winter, and the parenting lessons I learned, through the death of my son’s beloved goat, Lily.
On an early, cold Monday morning, my 11-year-old son, Luke, arrived at our back door with a wheelbarrow carrying his near life-less goat in it. After several hours of tender, loving care of this young goat on our family room carpet, Lily passed away. (You can read more details HERE.) At this point in our over-14 years of parenting, we had never encountered anything that tugged at us as emotionally as this did. It was a heartbreaking experience. My husband and I shed many tears alongside our son as we watched him first care for the sick goat, then as we watched him watch her die. The tears continued in the grief that followed during the subsequent days and weeks.
Thankfully, due to the passing of time, some of the pain and heartbreak has begun to subside, and I am able to see some really valuable lessons we learned through this experience.
- Help them feel no blame. Our son’s goat Lily was less than a year old when she died. She lived with another slightly older goat, in a nice goat pen that included a protective hut for them. There was no negligence in or mishap from Luke’s care or maintenance of the animals that led to Lily’s death. It was simply too cold for too long and Lily’s petite frame wasn’t strong enough to weather it. Without a doubt, we know Luke did his very best to take care of those animals through the long winter. We were sure to tell him this in the days that followed Lily’s passing. There was nothing he could have done to prevent it. (My husband and I, on the other hand, have wrestled with a fair amount of blame ourselves. Had we known such a devastating event would occur, we the non-animal people certainly would have allowed the goats to stay in our garage. Hindsight is always 20/20–a valuable lesson Luke has also been taught.)
- Let them feel the emotion. I could have never imagined the tears and emotion that came from my son’s small body as he lay by his beloved goat as she took her final breath. It was heart-wrenching. Unfortunately it didn’t end there; Luke’s emotions were on a roller-coaster for a good month or so following. One moment he’d be carefree and “normal” and a moment later, he’d be sobbing in his bed. Sometimes his grief manifested as tears and sadness, other times as anger and short-temperedness. We were careful to let him display his emotions when they came. We encouraged him to talk them through, and try to identify their particular source.
- Explain the emotion. Emotions are hard enough to explain to an adult; explaining them to a child was challenging. One evening, Luke was angry and mad. We helped him think about what may be the reason for his anger. Luke had asked for a “goat coat” for Lily. In his little mind, I hadn’t taken his request seriously enough, and he felt like if she’d had a coat, she would have lived. Although several of our experienced live-stock owner friends told us after the death that they didn’t think a coat would have made a difference for her, I was a directing point for his anger. We helped explain to him that anger is a very normal part of grieving. Although his reasoning was absolutely heartbreaking (and guilt producing) for me to hear, it helped clear the air, and explained to him that what he was feeling was very normal.
- Support them. Luke’s goats were a common discussion (distraction) in his 5th grade classroom. One of Lily’s very first outings the previous spring had been to Luke’s school as a special show and tell. Everyone in his class heard more than they ever wanted to know about Luke and his goats. Luke stayed home from school the day Lily was hopefully going to recover. We were optimistic she would recover quickly from her symptoms, and I had emailed the teacher to briefly explain Luke’s absence. Of course, that afternoon Lily died. Luke couldn’t bear the thought of facing a class full of questioning faces the next day. Although a part of me thought a return to a normal routine would be good for him, I respected the fact he couldn’t go very long without bursting into tears. I allowed Luke sometime home from school. I bought him supplies to assemble a shadow-box of remembrances. I did my best to get inside his little 11-year-old mind and try not to parent away his grief.
- Follow up. Although it has been 6 months since Lily’s death, I don’t pretend to think she is a forgotten part of Luke’s life. I am sure to give Luke my undivided attention when he brings Lily up, and I make sure to talk about her, too. Although Luke is now able to talk about Lily without tears, his face still turns very sullen when she is discussed. The experience is sure to be a defining moment in Luke’s life, and as his mother, I do my best to help him honor that.
It is safe to say I am still a non-animal lover, but I am beginning to see the benefits of animals in children’s lives. Of all the lessons children can learn from caring for an animal, I believe the most important is love. Even though love’s natural consequence is grief, it is still one of the highest, noblest qualities we can develop. So despite it being horses and goats that are teaching it to my son, what a blessing children can learn, develop and internalize LOVE in all its varying forms, at such a young age.
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
Question: Have your children experienced loss, how did you help them deal with it?
Challenge: Identify areas in your children’s life where they may experience loss. Think about how you will handle the challenging times that may come your way.