the dead squirrel

I had to talk with Clementine about death a few days ago.

There was this dying squirrel in the park… We almost stepped on him… He was writhing around in pain, gnashing his teeth and clawing desperately at the air.

I think he must have fallen from a tree. There was a dead branch about 35 feet overhead. There wasn’t any blood. My guess is that his back was broken.

I didn’t want to put him out of his misery in front of Clementine. (I don’t know if I could have anyway.) So, I found a neighbor.

I took Clementine aside and talked to her about the squirrel while our neighbor, “helped him feel better.”

Clementine asked why we didn’t call the ambulance. I tried to explain.

I saw my neighbor lifting up a sledgehammer, and made sure that Clementine couldn’t see what was happening.

I told her that some people believed in a place called heaven, where people and animals go after they stop living here on earth. It crossed my mind to bring up reincarnation as well, but I thought better of it. (I’ve got to save something for when she turns three.)

It’s amazing to me that we’ve been able to go almost three years without talking to her about death. No friends or relatives have pased away, and, luckily, she hasn’t made the connection yet — at least I don’t think she has — between the animals she loves to read about and the animals she loves to eat. A mouse died at her school about a year ago. I guess that would have been an opportunity to introduce the subject. Instead, I implied that he’d busted loose, saying something like, “Where would you go if you were a mouse and you got out?” This time it seemed more appropriate to tell the truth. It felt like the timing was right. I knelt down next to her and we talked for a few minutes about what happened. We talked about the squirrel’s life and what an accomplishment it was that he’d made it through the winter. We talked about how you have to be careful when you’re climbing trees. We speculated that he must have lived a very full life, full of lots of good nut eating. Later, she went home and told Linette all of this in her sad/serious voice. In the days since, she’s been drawing pictures of “Mister Squirrel.” She says she hopes he’s happy wherever he is.

[In unrelated news, Clementine can now say her ABC’s and count to 10 pretty consistently. I thought that was pretty good, until Linette told me that there was a girl in her class that could count to 20.]

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  1. murph
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Luckily, she hasn’t made the connection yet

    Luckily why? Because you’re not ready to go back to veganism yet?

  2. brian r
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Your neighbor takes a sledgehammer to the park?

    That’s what your daughter should be asking questions about.

  3. be OH be
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Maybe the death of Kurt Vonnegut will offer you another opportunity to discuss death with Clementine. You could read Slaughterhouse 5 to her.

  4. dorothy
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    a few weeks ago i had to go through the same thing with my granddaughter. i had a cat named lovey who shared my life for 18 years. she developed a malignant tumor behind her eye and when it became too uncomfortable for her, i had her euthanized. because my husband is a veterinarian, i had the incredible luxury of having the procedure done at home. lovey sat in my lap in her favorite room, purring, with no fear as she got the injection. my granddaughter was full of questions about where lovey went, would she ever come back, did i miss her—on and on. strangely, none of my other grandchildren had any questions. it’s difficult to soothe children’s minds about these experiences, but in the long run i think it’s a good thing for them to understand that life is finite and will eventually come to a close. i come from a generation that had old relatives living with us until the end, held a wake in our living room, kissed the dead body goodbye, helped close the coffin and followed it to the church. we had a full understanding of the circle of life—beginning and end and we were better prepared as a result.

  5. Posted April 12, 2007 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Squirrels must have nice lives. They can move across most neighborhoods without even touching the ground: trees, fences, telephone wires, ect. Imagine how fun that would be. Then you always see them chasing each other and playing, or taunting the neighborhood dogs. Meanwhile, us humans are oblivious most of the time, too worried about our jobs and everything else.

    Maybe the lesson is we need to remember to be like squirrels sometimes, but be more careful than that poor guy.

  6. egpenet
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Story … my kids were two and three at their first funeral. My great uncle was laid out in the funeral home and I spread out a blanket and some toys about eight feet from the casket. I asked them to be quiet so folks could spend some quiet time with “Uncle Fred’s body.” I think the kids spent more time with him than anyone, just talking.

    A week or so later, my son woke me up in the middle of the night with “Uncle Fred is in my room.” I told my son to ask Uncle Fred to go back to sleep so my son could sleep. I went back to sleep and Uncle Fred has kept to himself ever since.

    Death shall have no dominion …

  7. Kate
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Egpenet, maybe it’s just my belief system, but Uncle Fred could well have been in your son’s room. When my grandmother died, my older son was four. He didn’t really remember his great-grandmother, so we didn’t go into it right then. But, about three days after she died, he complained that “someone” had awakened him in the night. This went on for two or three nights before I finally asked him what this “someone” did to wake him up.

    “She pulls the covers up over my arm, then pats my shoulder two times,” he told me. And a chill went down my back. That was exactly my grandmother’s pattern of behavior when tucking us in. The next night, I went into his room, got him into bed and said out loud, “Nanna, please don’t pull the covers up. We know you’re here and we know you’re saying goodbye. We will miss you.” It never happened again.

    Sometimes, they need to be acknowledged before they move on. Or, at least, that’s my take on it.

  8. It's Skinner Again
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Clementine has now learned that sledgehammers make small animals feel better. You may have more explaining to do.

  9. egpenet
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Kate: You are so right. It was Uncle Fred, but I had J-P tell him to go back to sleep, instead of me. Trust me, Kate, I was trained to do that.

  10. mark
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    It does look like the squirrel is jumping out of Vonnegut’s cage, doesn’t it?

    And, no, Skinner, she didn’t see the sledgehammer. And, hopefully, she won’t know about it until years from now, in adulthood, when she finds this site.

  11. It's Skinner Again
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Just to be safe, I’d hide the sledgehammer the next time you get the flu.

  12. danandkitty
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Sweet story Mark. It sounds like you did a good job ‘splainin’ a difficult topic.

  13. ol' e cross
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    There is going to be hell to pay when we get to heaven and are swarmed by all the chickens, cows and pigs we’ve eaten.

    So far, I’ve skirted death with my daughter. I tried once to explain to her that “chicken” and “chickens” are the same thing, but she laughed and shook her head like I’d told one of my nutty jokes.

    The closest we’ve gotten is the unavoidable “smooshed,” which is what happens to squirrels and little girls if they run into the street.

  14. mARK
    Posted April 13, 2007 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The next ocassion you have to discuss the death of an animal try googling “rainbow” bridge”. It make it a bit easier for the younglings to understand

  15. cleo love-paste
    Posted April 13, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink


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