“We’re born, we live a little while, we die….By helping you maybe I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.” Charlotte,
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
My seven-year-old fingers gripped the tattered pages of my favourite book. Huddled under the covers with my flashlight, trying to sneak another few minutes of reading in the stillness of the night, my throat tightened as I approached the last passages. Charlotte, the spider was dead and Wilbur the pig was going to care for her babies. My heart ached for Wilbur. How could he lose his friend? My tender mind couldn’t understand how this was fair.
EB White wrote messages in indelible ink on my heart. One that I had romanticized being Fern: nursing a baby pig of my own and befriending farm animals. Another, that death was a part of the cycle of life.
When we bought our acreage in September my seven-year-old self was over the moon.
What does a big-hearted, animal-loving, grown woman with Charlotte’s Web fantasies do with a chunk of land? Fills it with animals of course. Late winter, this is exactly what we did. Seven pigs and seven sheep. Our farm is alive.
Months later, my husband rushed into the house urging the kids and me to come quickly.
“You’re never going to believe what has happened.”
The three of us hurried behind him as we approached the building that we refer to as PorkingHam Palace. There in the straw lay our sweet pig Marge and five little piglets. A complete surprise to all of us. And a complete scramble to provide the right temperature, space and circumstances for mom and babies.
We mobilized as a family. Mike started building. The kids dried, held and warmed the little ones, helping them to mom for their colostrum. I began researching best practices and was on the phone with a vet. A jolt of lightning had enervated all of us. We were working together toward the common purpose of helping these little guys survive. As industrious as we all were, a calm settled into us as we tucked mom and her piglets in for the night. Before bed, our hearts were full as we reflected on the triumphs of the day.
“They’re so cute”
“I still can’t believe she was pregnant. They were so little”
“Great job in building, Dad.”
“I think I saw all of them drink”
The next day brought another surprise. This time our hearts were heavy. The black and white piglet was not going to make it. It lay in the dirt, convulsing.
What happened next was excruciating and beautiful. Despite all of our efforts to feed them drop by drop, despite all of the advice and calls to the vet, they were so compromised three of our piglets died.
In the midst of this, my daughter’s tenderness emerged. Sweet twelve-year-old hands, stroking little faces, wrapping them, warming them, trying to feed them when they had no suck. Flooding when each of them passed, she shuddered in my arms.
“They can’t die, Mom. They can’t”
My inner Fern was outraged alongside her. The line between the points of birth and death can’t be that short.
“I know, baby. I know.”
Honestly, though, I didn’t know.
I felt her pain. I felt the loss, but there is nothing really known about death. Nothing except that it is the one unifying experience of all living creatures. The rest is a hunch that many religions take a guess at. As a parent who wants to console, wants to feed the pain of uncertainty with certainty, it becomes tempting to feed lines like:
“He’s in a better place.”
“He’s in the farm in the sky”
“He is watching over you now”
However, those are not words of connection. Sitting, as a therapist, with people who have lost a loved one, they are loathe for those sympathetic lines and for people who speak in bumper sticker platitudes. What do heavenly promises offer when the pain is real and here on earth? The underlying need that every grieving person has is to be seen. Grief needs air to breathe. It needs connection and empathy. There is the need to have the landscape of the unthinkable, of the pain they walk, acknowledged, but to also feel the closeness of still belonging.
Brene Brown has a beautiful cartoon illustrating the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy creates separateness. It’s the “that looks hard down there” comment of an animal looking down the hole at the one who has fallen in. She contrasts this with empathy, wherein the animal that puts a ladder down the hole and says “This is hard''. It climbs into the hole with them. The message becomes “I’m here with you.”
That is the challenge of talking with kids about death. Particularly because, in as much as no two people grieve the same way, kids in particular don't grieve like adults. The littlest ones I have worked with don’t often express “I am so sad mommy is gone”, but they engage in play that enacts some of the unsolved questions. Themes in play emerge in kids who are grieving:
“How can I feel safe and loved again without them?”
“Who am I without them?”
“Who can I go to for comfort”
Like the kids in Harry Potter who can see Thestrals because they have now seen death, they need adults around them that, on the one hand, aren't going to grill them on what they are experiencing and will openly accept what they elect to share. The form is theirs to define and ours to believe.
When my husband had testicular cancer a few years back, we had very different ways of sharing it with our nine-year-old and seven-year-old. My daughter understood that daddy was sick and needed surgery to get better. My son on the other hand wanted to understand the science of it. His story was that cancer was a hacker that had hacked into dad’s testicle cells and they needed to be eradicated. Different kids with different narratives to help them through scary times in our family.
While I go back to the lessons of EB White and I accept that death is a part of the cycle of life, particularly on a farm. I am comforted by knowing that those piglets were given as much love as we could give before they passed. Being a part of the animal world and not separate from it is incredibly meaningful for me. For my daughter, I hold her tight. I remind her that grief is the shadow side of love, her feelings are valid, and that I’ve got her.