A few days into the new year, my daughter’s pet hamster, Cheerio, took ill and died. On average, hamsters live two or three years. Ours was less than eight months old. One moment, the animal had been hale and hearty, monkeybar-ing her way from one side of the cage to the other. A few hours later, when we next paid attention to her, she was lying on the floor of the cage, her eyes closed. By the following morning the hamster was stiff and cold.
Like so many people before her who have suffered the loss of someone or something they had been close to, my daughter was swept away by a mysterious tumult of emotion. She cried with sadness, and railed against the seeming injustice of losing someone she considered to be a friend and companion. She was also filled with regrets, accusing herself of not spending enough time with her pet.
Like so many people before us who have tried to offer a degree of comfort and a glimmer of hope to another, whether it be to a young child mourning the death of an animal, or to the survivors of some incomprehensible tragedy on the other side of the world, my husband and I voiced well-meaning but largely ineffectual platitudes. We assured her that Cheerio was not feeling any pain, that her death was part of a larger, mysterious plan. We talked about different spiritual beliefs, and about the fact that death is not something dreadful, but simply an act of transformation, another stage of existence. In the end, the most important thing we did was to just offer her the solace of our voices and our presence, and to give her the dignity of feeling what she felt and working her way through it.
After supper that night, we placed the hamster’s body in a large matchbox that my daughter had decorated with tinfoil, beads and drawings. She made a cross out of popsicle sticks held together by an elastic band, and we buried the box beneath an apple tree in the backyard. I played Amazing Grace on a wooden flute, and my daughter recited a poem she had written for the occasion. I think all of this ceremony gave her a sense of closure, because after my husband read her a bedtime story that night–the first of her many inevitable encounters with mortality behind her–she told me about her plans to save up her allowance money for a budgie.
Quite often when we experience thoughts and emotions that we consider to be “negative”–such as sadness, worry, regret–we look for something to make us feel better, to distract us, at least temporarily, from the pain we’re feeling. We turn on the television set or go to the supermarket, bury ourselves in a good mystery novel or crack open a tub of ice cream. Unfortunately, denying our feelings is, at best, a short term solution. At some point, the darker feelings we’re trying to spare ourselves will come back to haunt us, and will continue to do so until we find the courage to simply allow ourselves to experience what are, after all, perfectly healthy and natural reactions to a complex world. When we stifle these thoughts and feelings, we are not only postponing the inevitable, we are submerging and denying a part of the richness of our lives. So the next time that darkness seems to be closing in, think perhaps of going for a walk through the woods, or explaining your feelings to somebody you care, about instead of looking for an “easy out”. There is no greater tribute to our humanity than to allow ourselves to experience all of the states of mind, from jubilation to despair and back again, that our brains and souls are capable of.