How do you explain death to a toddler?
My son is a lucky boy. He has a full complement of grandparents in rude health who adore him, and is cosseted in a family web of safety and security. I would do anything within my power to protect him from sadness or harm. I hold his hand as we descend the stairs, and when bad dreams wake him in the night even in my elephantine state I'm willing to shove up a bit so he can go back to sleep in his preferred comfort position, snuggled up on the edge of Daddy's pillow holding a fistful of my hair.
I realise this could be so much worse - my husband lost his beloved grandmother earlier this year - but we have been faced with the loss of one of the family pets, and at just over two, T 'knows'.
The rabbits predated the boy of course. Five and a half years ago with a patch of grass and too much time on our hands we relieved a colleague of two unwanted baby dwarf lops. When we arrived to pick up our new arrivals the mother (human, not rabbit obviously, this not being Watership Down) said 'I know I'm biased, but they're really bonny bunnies', and Bonny and Bigwig (OK, so maybe it was a little Watership Down) were named.
We lost Bonny a few years ago, before T was born, and replaced him with Bernadette, a completely bonkers rescue rabbit fond of chasing her own tail and trying to escape. Bigwig, older, slower and more sensible, was always T's favourite, happy to sit on the grass and be stretched towards, crawled towards and eventually toddled towards, always darting out of the way at just the right moment, leaving my boy giggling in a heap in the garden. T could say Bigwig long before he could say 'raddit'.
In the way of all things though, Bigwig had grown old and tired. As the weather cooled this autumn and he failed to fatten and fluff up in preparation for the winter ahead, we knew the end was in sight. He wasn't eating or cleaning himself and had a horrible recurring eye infection. Obviously miserable, we sadly made the decision to have him put down. My husband, tears in his eyes, made the trip to the vet yesterday morning and buried Bigwig alongside Bonny, under the rosebush in the front garden.
But how to explain to T?
I definitely didn't want to say that our missing pet had 'gone to sleep', potentially leaving our toddler terrified of closing his eyes, but talk of stars and heaven doesn't sit particularly well with our agnosticism. With T's diary stuffed full of hospital and clinic appointments, I was similarly loathe to tell him that the vet (or the 'rabbit doctor' as he calls him) couldn't make Bigwig better, which was why he hadn't come home. So what to say? Luckily, two wet days mean we haven't been out in the garden since yesterday morning. T hasn't yet noticed his furry friend's absence, buying my husband and I another day to get our story straight before the inevitable questions.
In need of a change of scenery, we trudged around the Trafford Centre yesterday afternoon. Dodging the hyper-keen early Christmas shoppers, we took T to John Lewis to choose a new toy as a present for his baby sister. Once he had been persuaded away from the big red buses, he selected a super soft, snowy white, floppy eared bunny. Snuggling it close to his chest he said 'like Bigwig, for baby'. And that made us smile.