It happens to every farm kid. There’s that one lamb they just love. That one bunny. That one chicken. And then, one day, that animal passes and the pain that loss causes can be so disheartening.
As farmers, we understand the cycles of life. We get death. It happens. Sometimes, an animal is specifically raised with love and respect to be harvested and eaten by our family or others. This is the way of farming, but as parents, it can be hard to know how to help our children process the very real and important lessons that death on the homestead can teach them.
The Realities Of Death On The Farm
We had a hen, Nanny, that limped from the time she was a baby. We never knew what caused her limp, but even though it never seemed to impede her, the other chickens picked on her for what they perceived as a weakness. It got so bad that we had to remove her from the coop for her own safety. Fortunately, we were running a small flock of turkeys at the time, and because they were still quite young, we put Nanny in with them.
For whatever reason, those turkeys thought of Nanny as their mother, even though the boys by that time were bigger than her. She, likewise, thought of them as her chicks. She cooed over them, bossed them around and made sure she always knew where they were as they ranged around. One cluck from her, even as full-sized birds, and those turkeys would come from wherever they were to see what she wanted. As the males matured and began to puff up and thrum their feathers, she would walk up completely unimpressed, peck their chests, and they’d immediately deflate in an apologetic sort of way.
Nanny was special. We all loved her. Then, one morning, my chicken-whisperer daughter came in sobbing, holding a wet, limp Nanny in her arms. There was just nothing we could do. Nanny was gone. Drowned as a prank by some neighborhood boys who used to sneak over our fence and terrorize our animals. All of us wept, even my light-hearted husband.
It took me a minute or two to get my mom face back on and start comforting everyone that day. We ended up having a great conversation about losing the things we love. The very real truth is that you can’t love something without opening up your heart to the possibility of losing it. That’s true of people, of animals and of any beauty in the world.
We’d experienced loss on the homestead before and since, and the pain doesn’t seem to diminish any. The last time we lost a chick, one of my children asked in exasperation through her tears, “Shouldn’t we get used to this?!” I was only able to give her my very strong opinion that the moment the loss gets easier is the moment we need to get out of small farm livestock. That includes harvesting the animals for meat. If there ever comes a time where it’s easy for me to take an animal’s life, even to sustain my family, that is the moment I become a vegetarian. To me and my family, these animals that share their lives and labor with us are sacred friends.
Helping Our Children Cope
Here are a few ideas you might consider applying to help your family understand and cope with farm deaths. Hopefully, this is something you’re reading before you have to be a brilliant, wise parent in the middle of a crisis.
Please just tell it like it is. Children aren’t unintelligent; they’re just young. How many times have I heard my peers still struggling in adulthood with the loss of pet cat because Mom said the cat had just run away, when in reality, Mom had her euthanized? Just tell that truth about what’s happened—whatever the cause of the loss. We had to tell the kids that Nanny had been deliberately drowned as a prank. That was hard. Much harder than if Nanny had been killed by an animal predator for food. What followed, after the anger, was a good discussion on forgiveness. (And perimeter safety on the homestead so that it didn’t happen again.)
Know your children’s natures.
Be prepared to allow your more sensitive child time to cry, even days or weeks afterward. Be willing to make a grave marker with your creative child so he can properly say goodbye. If your eternally sunny child is off bouncing on the trampoline moments after crying her eyes out, don’t assume something is wrong with her—honor her nature by letting her process in the way that’s natural for her.
Be encouraged by your farming endeavors.
Your decision to include your children in your self-sufficient lifestyle is admirable. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re harming your kids by exposing them to death at such a young age. As Lindsey from Chickadee Homestead writes, “Children are much tougher then we think they are. And they are more capable of understanding big concepts than we give them credit for. I’m learning that hard isn’t bad. It’s just hard. And if you’re paying attention you can learn through hard experiences what you couldn’t through easy ones.”
Know not every death will affect you and your children the same.
Perhaps you’re not naturally sentimental or you just didn’t happen to bond with whatever animal was lost. Regardless, if the animal was important to your child and the child is feeling that loss, take it seriously enough to help them memorialize the animal in some way. Farm kids are different in that they’re often trained not to think of all animals as pets, unlike another child might. However, if you come up against a child’s loss that needs a certain closure, do something about it. Krystyna, from Spring Mountain Living, had a similar experience with an actual pet (not a farm animal) loss with her son: “I knew before I even went to the fishbowl: Swimmy, a goldfish, was dead. I admit, my first reaction was to put him in the compost and move on. After all, Swimmy was just a goldfish. But after giving it a thought, I realized that importance is subjective. Just because a goldfish wasn’t important to me, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t important.”
If appropriate for your child, help him hold a funeral, complete with a eulogy. Make a garden paver with shells or tiles embedded in it to mark the grave; kits for those can be purchased at any craft store. Make a photo album of special animals that your children have loved through the years, especially the ones they’ve lost.
If you need more help with supporting your family during a time of loss, read Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, an old Alice Provensen book that every homestead family should own. If you’re willing, please share your stories with us in the comments below, and let us know how you helped your kids through the experience of death.