Grieving for Scarlatti

6:12:00 PM

This morning Duncan came into my bedroom and closed the door. "I have bad news," he announced solemnly. "One of the guinea pigs has died."

We were on the point of going out. The older girls were gathering their music: they had piano exams at 9 am. Should I tell the girls about the guinea pig before or after the exams? I decided I had to tell them straightaway. I wanted Duncan to bury the animal and I thought the girls had a right to see their pet one last time if they wished.

Gemma-Rose cried when she heard the news, but Sophie was braver than she had been when Scarlatti the guinea pig died. "We'll make Pia a cross when we get back from the exams."

Piano exams and having pets are both difficult. Sometimes I wonder why we get involved in either. But sometimes the lessons we learn are worth all the possible heart-ache.

Please share my story Grieving For Scarlatti which may seem like a pet tale but in fact is a story about grief. I wrote this story in November 2010.

On Sunday, we had a death in the family. Scarlatti the guinea pig is no more. My younger girls are devastated.

Scarlatti was 6 years old, a very senior citizen of a guinea pig, so his death wasn’t totally unexpected. But being prepared for a beloved pet’s death doesn’t make it any easier.

We bought Scarlatti when Gemma-Rose was a baby. She can’t remember a time when we didn’t have him. As far as she is concerned, he has always lived in our garden, nibbling our grass, waiting to be fed or played with and always available for a cuddle.

On Sunday morning Gemma-Rose appeared at the door with Scarlatti cradled in her arms, a worried look on her face. “We were playing with Scarlatti and then we put him back in his cage. We went off to get him some grass but when we came back, he was still lying where we left him.” Andy did a quick medical examination and gently pronounced Scarlatti dead.

Tears spurted from the girls’ eyes. They howled with grief. I could have distracted them from their pain. I might have tried to cheer them up. But I didn’t. They felt sorrowful and they needed to express their feelings. I hugged both of my daughters tightly and just let them cry.

Andy asked the girls if they wanted one last photo of Scarlatti and they nodded their heads. Then it was down to the bottom of the garden to dig him a grave. Duncan suggested the girls might like to throw a few pretty flowers into the grave so while Andy dug, they all went off to pick some daisies. Scarlatti was carefully laid into the ground, the flowers were scattered and the grave filled in. “Thank you God for Scarlatti. He was a good pet.” There were fresh howls of grief and a wistful, “I wish there was a pet heaven.”

I cried too. Not for Scarlatti, but for the girls. It was heart breaking watching their pain. Soon we all wiped our eyes and talk turned to crosses. The girls went off to find suitable sticks.

I remember writing a story called The Viewing*, a few years again. In it, I wrote:

I am the type of person who hates to look at dead pets. If I see a goldfish floating upside down, I immediately avert my gaze and yell, “Callum! The fish is dead. Quick! Scoop it out and bury it.” I don’t know what I am going to do when the guinea pigs decide they’ve had enough of life. I hope it is not me who discovers their lifeless forms on the floor of their cage. So you see, it was a real concern of mine when I had to face the fact that I might have to hold, not an expired pet, but the body of our dead son.

In the end, it wasn’t me who discovered our expired guinea pig. It was Gemma-Rose. She didn’t even think about not wanting to hold a dead body. She just scooped him up gently and went in search of help. She wasn’t frightened by death because there is something much stronger than death and that is love. Gemma-Rose loved Scarlatti just like I loved Thomas.

Most of my children are familiar with death, grief and mourning because they remember losing a brother. But Sophie and Gemma-Rose were born after Thomas died. They have only heard about that pain second-hand. For them, being allowed to grieve over their guinea pig has taught them things the others already know. They have learnt that having someone or something special to love is wonderful, a real gift. But when you love, you open yourself up to possible heart-ache. You grieve when that person or animal dies. It is a huge loss. They have learnt that it is alright to cry and be sad. They don’t need to cheer up and put on a brave face. Scarlatti was worth all those tears, he gave them so much pleasure. And the rituals of having a burial and making a cross give some comfort. They allowed the girls to do one last thing for their beloved pet.

I sometimes wish we didn’t have pets. I know eventually we will have to face the deaths of each of them. It will be heart breaking every time. But I also know this heart break is a good preparation for life: somewhere along our children’s pathways they will have to face the bigger deaths of people they love. Hopefully, they will remember it is ok to grieve, to cry and to take their time mourning. They won’t have to cheer up and get on with life but heal at their own pace. And although the pain will be overwhelming, they will still be thankful they had the opportunity to love.

*The Viewing can be found in my book, Grief, Love and Hope

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  1. I agree that having pets can teach children a lot about life and death. In our case, having a number of chickens who have, on occasion, been taken by foxes, has meant that our children are now quite practical about animals dying.

    We also had a loss, the other night. A fox got into the chicken coop and took three chickens. We didn't have a funeral (obviously!) - everyone just set to fixing the coop door, instead.

    I wonder how the children will react when they are faced with bigger deaths.

  2. Hi Vicky,
    yes, loving and caring for a pet teaches children about grief in a little way. I think it is also an opportunity for a parent to learn how to comfort the grieving. Maybe we are too quick to offer to replace the pet or find another distraction when what a child really needs is to be allowed to show her feelings and grieve.

    I'm sorry to her about the fox and your chooks!



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