Back in September we had a new arrival in our family – Biscuit, the hamster. She had been long awaited, a gift promised because of a house move across the country. Our 6 year old was so very excited and, although she hasn’t done the lion’s share of looking after it, she has adored this tiny furry friend (or sister as she was referred to from time to time).
Sadly, we found lovely Biscuit dead in her bed this week. She had been fine, running around her cage, eating her food, running on her wheel. She should have lived for at least a year, if not two. Her death is very unexpected.
I share this because we aren’t surrounded by opportunities to talk about death and the heartache that comes. It was almost simpler when my grannie (the 6 year old’s great-grannie) died in the autumn. She was old, she was poorly for a few days beforehand, and she was slightly removed from our day-to-day family life. Of course, my daughter was sad when Grannie Mac died, but with Biscuit it’s been something else.
When my husband and I discovered Biscuit’s furry corpse, still so soft and cuddly feeling, my natural instinct was protection. “Could we just go and buy her an identical one? Replace Biscuit before she notices?” I asked my husband anxiously. Thankfully, my husband is much better at this than me.
“No,” he said, “We’ve got to do this properly.”
Despite my best instincts to shelter my little one from the heartache of sudden death and loss, the best protection that lasts long-term is the type of protection that allows you to develop a strong heart for the future. Not cold-hearted and impenetrable, where no pain and loss makes a mark. Instead, a strong-heartedness that knows that, in time, despite the current heartache, you will overcome the loss that death provides.
We told her. As the words came out of my mouth, her face crumpled as she let out a cry. The tears came and it was devastating to watch her as she experienced the depths of grief for a beloved family member. As the news has settled, we’ve talked about how we might say goodbye to our furry friend. We’ve shared our favourite things about her. We’ve let our daughter cry and grieve as best as we can, even though – to us – it was just a £10 hamster from Pets at Home.
There are hundreds of websites out there that will tell you how to break the news of death to a child, how to talk about death, how to help your child grieve when the time comes. This is not one of those. Rather, this is one pained mother encouraging you to be honest with your child. To hold them close when the tears come, and to keep pointing them onwards to a time when they won’t feel so much heartache.
Death and heartache are an inevitable part of life. Our job, as parents, is to enable our children to walk this painful path with hope and love.
I try not to think of the future or the past, if I can help it. It’s too easy to let the imagination get carried away dreaming grand dreams for the future, and too simple to let the mind dwell on all that has gone before.
Yet, I do often think of the past.
I find myself wondering how different life would be if I had made different decisions along the way. I think about the events of my life and how, for better or worse, they have formed me. I wonder whether there is anyone who knows absolutely all of my past and still chooses to be with me in the present anyway.
I guess the good news is that there is someone.
Jesus came into the world to restore our relationship with God the Father. Isn’t that incredible?
I was reading Genesis 16 this morning and Hagar speaks of the God who sees her. It is quite something to think of. How many of us have a longing to be really seen? To be known and understood, and loved and affirmed anyway?
So, yes, I think of the past. I wonder how it might be different, not because I am unhappy with the status quo, but because that’s what my mind does: wonders. And I do wonder, and marvel, that there is a God who sees me – all of me – and chooses to be with me in the present and I know he will be with me in the future.
As a teenager, my hero was the sailor/adventurer Ellen MacArthur, who became the youngest person to circumnavigate the world solo. I had started sailing and, to me, this adventurer was incredible. Transfixing, even.
I knew what it was to be sailing in less than ideal conditions, alone in a boat. Yet, I was never really alone. We always had 2 instructors on the water in a rescue boat who could come alongside at any moment. As I’ve grown older I have come to realise that, whilst my hero was in the boat on her own, she wasn’t totally solo. There were support teams at the end of a radio, race marshals and rescue teams nearby whenever possible.
This got me thinking, are we ever truly solo?
I often go out for solo walks, to mull things over, to quieten my busy brain, to be alone. And yet, even then, I don’t walk solo. I walk with the voices and experiences of my life, lived in relationship with other people. I may walk solo, but I carry with me the wholeheartedness of a non-solo life.
It’s impossible to escape it, really. For me, even when I am physically solo, I walk with Jesus spiritually. I carry relationships and interactions, past and present, with me emotionally.
Sometimes in the noise of life, I think solo might be preferable… but then I remember, we weren’t made to live life solo. We were made to live life in connection with others – even if we need to escape to the solitude for a little while.