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Death and the (young) maiden


Earlier this year my family faced an existential crisis. Wolfgang Amadeus Theodorus Philosophus Gittins, our noble, 16-year-old apricot Spoodle, was failing. While we had successfully alleviated his arthritis, he was mostly blind and deaf.

Artwork by Chris Johnston shows death leading a dog away while a young girl feeds her pet chickensMore disturbingly, our furry familial was prone to sudden bursts of fear and disconnection. He no longer instantly knew us. His mind, in football parlance, was 'gawn'. Wolfie had, as a family friend and veterinarian explained, gotten to the point where he had 'lost his essential dogginess'.

I drove him to the vet, where a kind practitioner carried out an act of mercy. I held Wolfie as he reclined, lay still and breathed his last. Our dog's passing was sad for me, my wife, and our son. But for our daughter, preparing for her first year of high school, Wolfie's death presented a looming disaster.

A sensitive child who has observed the passing of six great-grandparents and assorted relatives in the past 18 months, and who's attended several of the funerals, Emily wasn't ready to say goodbye.

Her fears led me back to a phone call in September 2006, co-handled by a good mate as we drove to photograph and interview some local musos. 'Daddy,' the empathetic three-year-old had confided, 'I [sob] don't [howl] wanna die!'

She was at home perched in Mum's lap, watching Steve Irwin's televised funeral. The sight of Bindi Irwin and little bro Bob hit home.

We talked it out, then and later, but death's existential maw has continued to loom. Death, as she points out, sucks. Her aversion to an expiry date is not unique; I recognise that. We've been flummoxed at how to go about alleviating this most human of anxieties, and it's truly a work in progress.

Wolfgang the SpoodleMark Twain is purported to have said that 'the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.' Timidity equals preoccupation with mortality? No disrespect to Samuel, but it's unlikely he shared that gem with his daughters and granddaughter.

More helpful, for me at any rate, has been some research on the much-talked-about quality of 'resilience'. The New Yorker recently opined that 'resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren't', and that, optimistically, 'resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught'.

Individual, psychological factors and external, environmental factors, once serving as traumatic factors, can sway how children develop their outlook on life.

That's hardly earth-shattering information, but the article noted that the researchers, based on longitudinal studies of schoolchildren, identified that 'from a young age, resilient children tended to 'meet the world on their own terms'. They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a 'positive social orientation'.

'Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an 'internal locus of control': they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.'

It's hard to playact your role as 'orchestrator of your own fate', let alone direct your kids' existential drama. But quiet, kind reflections and a strongly visual reminder of life's cyclical nature have helped.

Before Wolfgang's one-way trip to the vet, my wife and I had talked about some grief counselling for the kids. We decided on an alternative treatment: over two weeks we hosted 12 fertilised chook eggs, safely ensconced in an incubator, which led to nine indignant, reptilian-looking hatchlings.

The kids, and my entranced spouse, were there to welcome the avian arrivals as they busted out of their life support systems. Eyes as wild as their smiles; voices cooing a warm welcome.

Names were regally and judiciously bestowed. Emily allocated monikers like Gloria and Sunlight, while Ben the Boy opted for names like Zap and Arc. Naming a thing gives it dignitas: witness the late, lamented Wolfgang; the weight of his passing has been eased.

We've purchased the Taj Mahal of chicken coops (these palatial digs were, thankfully, assembled by the better half) for once the fledglings are more or less fully fledged.

In the interim we've orchestrated some social housing — evicting the guinea pigs for other accommodation, we set about making a night-time haven for hens and roosters alike (luckily for the neighbours, we're required by law to give the roosters back).

To avoid predators, we have instituted a gated chook community as the chooks set about establishing their own pecking order.

If resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills to be taught, or a set of experiences to be lived, then we hope that the chooks will help us roost our kids a little bit more securely.


Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for The Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Mark Twain, life, death, family pet, parenting



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Existing comments

Delightful story Barry. You are your wife are kind and thoughtful parents.

Chicken | 02 March 2016  

We are all, more or less approaching the 'bell lap" and interwoven in all this is the plain mystery of life; encapsulated nicely in this suburban snapshot. To quote the old Jewish saying -life is just one dam thing after another. Valé Wolfie.

Ron Rumble | 02 March 2016  

Wolfi what a life you had the love you shared with your family and they with you. Family you have now embraced a new sharing with the chickens - the cycle of life.

patricia | 04 March 2016  

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