We had a very unexpected tragedy in our house today. For the last few days my wife's brothers and their families have been in town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Friday night and into Saturday my daughter's girl cousins had a sleepover at our house, making a grand total of five girls ranging from ages 7 to 11. One of the things they all really liked was my daughter's rat, Adara. They had her out a lot, handling and playing with her. Adara has always been well cared for and is used to being played with, but this was more than she usually has.
After church we went out and spent a few hours going to lunch and doing some light shopping as a family. When we returned we hung some pictures around the house, including in my daughter's room. I looked over at the rat tank and saw that Adara appeared to be sleeping, which was very unusual considering that she's always active. I tapped on the tank and she didn't respond. A quick look confirmed my fears. She was dead.
She was a little less than two years old, and though that's relatively old for a rat she was in good condition. In fact, I had helped clean her cage earlier in the week and had purposefully given her a quick checkup, finding nothing worrisome. My daughter was a great rat mommy and was adamant about feeding her, making sure she had water, and keeping the cage clean. Honestly, I'm a bit perplexed about what may have happened, unless she was unintentionally injured with the extreme handling she had gotten by all of the girls. Just yesterday morning she seemed fine, so this happened within the last 24 hours. It also appeared that she had passed away while sleeping, as she was in a sleep position and her eyes were closed.
I knew that breaking the news wasn't going to be easy. My daughter had saved her own money to buy all of the equipment for the cage and Adara herself and was deeply in love with the little rat. She was very responsible in caring for her and played with her every day. I knew this was going to be devastating.
As a vet I sometimes have to talk to pet owners about euthanasia while their children are in the room. I've also been asked how to talk to kids about the death of pets, such as what to tell them and if the parent should just quietly replace the missing hamster. I'm certainly not a child psychologist and am always a little nervous about giving advice. But I think that honesty is always the best policy. I don't think that we should lie to anyone, including children. They will have to learn about and face death at some time, and doing so from a loving adult is often the easiest way in a difficult situation.
That doesn't make it easier. I really hate seeing children crying their heart out over the loss of a loved pet, as it reminds me of my own kids. I'm also a little uncomfortable around human grief, not really knowing how to handle it. Seeing the sorrow in kids is even harder. It's important to help them through the grieving process and respect their honest feelings. This isn't being too juvenile or pouting over something they can't have. This is a real sadness over the death of a loved one.
So I steeled myself, sat my daughter down on my bed, and gently told her that something had happened and Adara had died. As expected she started crying as I could see her 10 year-old heart breaking. Adara hadn't been sick so there was no preparation for what might happen. Just yesterday she was playing with her rat, and today she was dead. It's hard enough to watch someone else's child crying, but it tore me up to see my own daughter going through it. It wasn't long before I was crying along with her, more at her sadness than from the loss of her rat.
I don't want anyone to say "eww, it was just a rat." Rats make great pets and are very social and intelligent. My daughter loved her rat and took great care of her. The species doesn't make a difference when it comes to love and attachment. This was as much a part of my daughter's heart as any of our dogs or cats. Maybe a little more so because Adara was completely her responsibility.
We buried her tonight behind a tree stump we have made into a fairy house and garden. My daughter asked that the cage be taken out of her room because it was too hard to see it empty. And she has asked to sleep downstairs in the family room for a few nights because it will be hard for her to be in the room knowing Adara is gone.
When she is ready, we'll get her another rat, but we're waiting for it to be her decision. Until then we will love and support her.