Death is never an easy topic to handle with children. This year, we seem to be seeing a lot of it. Regular readers of this column may be aware that I have chickens, and that one of them sat on a nest of eggs for three weeks. Late one recent evening, I peeked into the chicken coop at my broody hen, a black Australorp named Freya. Typically, she fluffed up her feathers and growled a warning at me. But then I saw it - a tiny brown chick! I squealed with delight. The striped chick peeped softly from beneath Freya's wing, looking at me warily. I resisted pushing the hen aside to check the rest of the eggs and closed the door to the next box, to let her hatch her babies in peace.
By the next morning there were three chicks, and by the afternoon, five. In the evening I fretted over one little chick that had opened up his shell, but seemed exhausted and had made no progress in several hours. I researched this problem frantically on the internet (since the internet is always right, huh?) and armed with the collective advice of DFW Poultry Yahoo group, tugged gently on the partially cracked off section of his shell. Sure enough, it came away easily, and a few minutes later the last little chick kicked free of his shell. He lay panting against his adoptive mother's feathers as she clucked to him. Again reluctantly, I left them alone.
The next morning Freya had abandoned the three remaining eggs in favor of the six chicks who were up and about. I threw these away with a heavy heart. Curiosity made me want to crack them open, but my better sense said I was better off not knowing. Out of the twelve eggs I'd bought to put under Freya, who so desperately wanted a family, six had hatched. I'd have to be happy with that.
My preschooler was, of course, crazy about the chicks, and the toddler was fascinated too. I particularly liked watching Freya with them. She showed them how to scratch, pecked the other chickens away from her brood, and when it started to get cold or they needed to rest she would lay down and cover them with her wings, all the while clucking contentedly, almost like a chicken purr, her eyes half-shut in a highly recognizable motherhood doze. I know that look well, as I wear it a lot.
Not all was perfect in Chick World, however. The next morning one of the chicks was dead. I suspect it had gotten trampled by one of the older chickens, perhaps in a scuffle. Perhaps it just hadn't developed right. That wasn't the last one, though. Another chick was badly injured a few days later. It would have not been so bad except that she didn't die immediately. I cupped her tiny body in my hands and brought her inside, careful to shield her from the boys so they wouldn't know what was going on. I leaned against the counter in the kitchen, away from the chaos of the rest of the house, stroking her tiny downy head and talking to her quietly. She fit in the palm of one hand. For a minute she started looking like she might recover; she sat up, looked around, tried to get her legs under her. But then she kicked wildly a few times, and stopped moving altogether. I buried her under the roses.
I found I couldn't explain what had happened to my son. An adult animal he could grasp, but a baby animal held an entire new world of hurt for him. Perhaps it was a great failure on my part that I couldn't be truthful to him about the chicks. We had experienced death together before; our cat, Spike; my grandmother; one of our original hens. I was afraid he was going to make the logical leap that if an infant chicken could die, then he could too. I don't want to lie to my son, or to shield him from the reality of nature, but his own mortality is a pretty big issue to deal with at four years old. I could picture midnight crying jags, unable to console my child who was afraid to die; the boy asking other people, who would give him comforting but (in my view) untrue information, like "God won't let you die, you're only little." I didn't have the right words to comfort him, and he didn't have the emotional maturity to handle such fears. He already had problems with being worried that my husband or I would die; I didn't want to add to the list.
Another part of that equation was that I was afraid I would start crying. I try not to restrain my emotions around the kids, since I think it is valuable for them to see me being honest, even when that honesty is not pretty or even one hundred percent appropriate (with the exception of screaming, which is for pillows in the garage, not for directing at kids.) This time, though, I couldn't do it. I knew I would lose it, and I didn't want to be out of control. If I hadn't held her while she died ... But I did, and I was glad for it, because I was able to thank her for being in our lives, and to hope that she at least felt warm and safe in her last moments. I wouldn't change that. I needed to come to terms with my own emotions before trying to share them with the kids.
So I did something I almost never do with the kids. I lied. I said that someone else had the chicks. Which is true, in a way; the universe has them. I spared my son this one, may the world forgive me for my weakness. I tried to justify it to say it would be too much for my preschooler. But I know that's not the first, greatest reason. This time it was me. The best I could do was perhaps flawed, but I think this time I will forgive myself for being wrong.
About the Author: Julie Cox is a new pagan writer and artist who lives with her two young children and husband in Texas. She carries degrees in both Art and Religion. To see more of Julie's artwork go to Shopping and Art gallery on our main menu.