Photo by Kristy Rammel
“But Momma, you can fix him! Right?”
No parent wants to hear her child cry these words. We want to be superheroes to our youngsters, and we feel guilty when the cape just doesn’t work. But homestead children can get a different view death. When you live in the city and a beloved family pet dies, a common little white lie told by many parents is “He went to live in the country.” But what happens when you live in the proverbial doggy heaven?
My children range in age from 4 to 17. They each understand, in their own capacities, the process of life and death on the farm. They are able to observe the entire circle. In their short time in the country, they have witnessed numerous births and hatches. They have learned to appreciate the work involved in preparing for these events, and the work involved in protecting and raising these young animals.
Even when it’s time to process animals for food, they’re taught to respect the life that is being given so they can eat healthier. They know the humane way the animals are raised and the benevolence involved in their deaths. My husband and I will not tolerate jokes, snickering and play during this time. While my younger children do not see the process, they are aware of it.
Many homesteading families have animals in three basic categories: pets, food and breeding. Every now and then, we have an animal that just manages to wiggle its way into our hearts as a beloved pet, even though it starts as something different.
Shortly before Christmas, we found one of our young pullets had gotten injured. When this happens, my first instinct is not to cull it. I try to assess the entire situation, as well as look at quality of life before I make any final decisions. In this little girl’s case, her injuries appeared severe but not fatal.
She had injured her hip area and a nasty infection was setting in. I separated her from the flock, gave her extra protein and electrolytes, and treated her infection with daily topical cleanings and natural remedies. Before long, her infection cleared up, but it became obvious she would never walk right and would not be able to go back with the flock. Unfortunately—for me, that is—during my time nursing her back to health, she had managed to move into the pet category. For a brief period she was dubbed CC, cat chicken, because she’d purr whenever I’d pet her. She would even roll over on her side for me to scratch her wings and underside, just like a cat.
Eventually, we decided she would be my garden chicken. She was lame enough not to wreak havoc on my beds, but still mobile enough to keep out a few garden pests. This new “garden guardian” role earned her the name GG; a respectable name after my own GG, my grandmother.
My grandmother GG was raised on a dairy farm in the Midwest. She has been my teacher and my mentor in many aspects of my country life. She has also witnessed my growing affection for my feathered friends! And like my chicken GG, after she broke her hip a few years ago, she still walks with a wobble! (Oh, my grandmother just loves it when I say that!)
For four months I have given chicken GG weekly warm water baths, she has been unable to manage a dirt bath and therefore needed help keeping dander down and her vent clean. In that time, she has never produced an egg, had no interest on sitting anyone else’s eggs, and never grew like her nest mates did, remaining very small and petite instead. So I had a non-laying, non-foraging, non-edible (not that I would at this point anyway!) chicken cat that purred and wobbled like an old lady! For all intents and purposes, I had a pet chicken. No, not completely uncommon, but with the amount of maintenance required, it was a little odd—even for me!
Sadly, last Thursday night, chicken GG passed. I was able to see it coming that afternoon but was unable to stop it. In the wee hours of the night, after the children had gone to bed, she passed away, in the warmth and safety of the house, with me scratching and loving on her. Wrapped in the cover of darkness, I cried. The quiet surrounded me, no purring, no heavy breaths, no ruffling of the feathers. I sobbed like a little girl. I sobbed for what seemed like hours, until I finally fell asleep.
I was thankful my children did not have to witness my raw emotion. I was thankful to have the night to mourn privately. While I want my children to know that I too miss this precious soul, I didn’t want to add to their own pain by seeing the full extent of Momma’s grief. I needed to be able to stand tall when they looked up at me so full of questions. “Why? What happened? Did you…? Couldn’t you…?” I needed to stand tall even though I was unable to make the cape work this time and be the hero they expected me to be.
So how do you explain death to the kids? I want my own children to be part of this beautiful, and sometimes sad, circle. I want them to know we care for animals; we treat their lives and their deaths with respect. And in return, the animals provide nourishment—sometimes for our bodies and sometimes for our souls. While I won’t be able to save every wayward animal on the farm, I am grateful to be able to ease the suffering, regardless of the outcome. And I’m grateful my children know no animal will suffer in life or in death here on this farm.