Backyard funeral: The story of a boy, his hamster and one family's backyard burial.

No, Brooks, your hamster is not hibernating.

My husband knew the situation was not good the second he heard our youngest, Brooks, call down from his bedroom, "Dada, I think Rascal is hibernating." Without hesitation and without me there to solve the crisis, my husband bolted up the stairs to Brooks's bedroom.

Brooks sat in the middle of the floor staring with bewilderment into his hamster cage. Rascal was curled up, lifeless, beneath his hamster wheel. My husband picked him up, and Brooks asked to hold Rascal. My husband softly placed the cold, stiff hamster into Brooks outstretched palms, while tears streamed down his still-soft-and-smooth baby cheeks. And I wasn't home.

As a mother, I have a terrible habit of pushing aside my needs because there never seems to be enough time for me. I have three school-aged children and there is always a test the next day, a last minute project to create, soccer/football/baseball practice to dash off to or a group of kids showing up at my house to eat my food and play video games. I swore that I would never be the kind of mother who would push aside her own needs, and yet, so often, I find myself in horrible pain for weeks with an illness or injury and not able to sleep at night because I just don't have time to go to the doctor. And so the night that I finally schedule an appointment to take care of me, the hamster dies.

Rascal came into the world in December 2008, on my mother's birthday. We met Rascal when he was only days old, pink, hairless and really quite ugly. My sister hand-raised him and his brothers and sisters to accept human contact and not fear being held. She was more than successful. Rascal was the sweetest hamster ever; and by the time, we brought him home in January, he was still tiny, but furry and craving affection. Brooks, without any hesitation, claimed Rascal as his. He was Brooks's first pet -- his best friend. And, Rascal was also Brooks's first experience with death.

I feel awful and callous admitting this, but my husband and I adopted Rascal for a reason: We knew hamsters had a 2-3 year life span, and we wanted our kids to experience death and grieving. We chose Rascal to teach our children about death.

However, in the midst of all of our careful planning, we didn't plan on my absence. My husband is an amazing, competent man, and I have no doubts that he handled the situation with love, but I, his mama, wasn't there. Brooks tried to call my cell phone, but I didn't get the message until my appointment was over almost an hour later. I raced home from my doctor, but I was stuck with a half hour commute home. My voice sympathizing and consoling over a cold, medal cell phone was a poor substitute for my arms. Brooks is my 7 year old, but he will always be my baby, my last baby. And he was in pain. Still is in pain. And I wasn't there.

By the time I arrived home, he had cried himself to sleep. I climbed the ladder of his loft bed and kissed his head, while trying not to bang mine on the ceiling. Phillip, my very sensitive middle son, was still awake in his bedroom. We talked, and I rubbed his back. I was able to do all of the comforting mom things to Phillip that I longed to do to Brooks. And my heart ached.

The next morning, Brooks woke up with red-rimmed eyes and catapulted into my out-stretched arms. We clung to each other, crying. Sure, Rascal was just a rodent we had affectionately nicknamed "Dirty Rat", but he was also a beloved family member.

This last week has been difficult for Brooks. Rascal's burial had to be postponed several times due to weather and my husband's work schedule. During those days, Brooks was full of questions: "Can we bury Rascal in the Catholic cemetery?" (Apparently, the hamster, unlike his owners' practice of cafeteria Catholicism, was a very devout Catholic.) "Is Rascal in hamster heaven or regular heaven?" (Um, I think that there is a door connecting them. God would want us to see our pets, right? I mean, right!) "Since Rascal is not buried yet, can I hold him?" (Well... Rascal's body was just a shell -- kinda like a hermit crab. His spirit just grew too big for the shell and went to live with God in heaven. Now his shell is going to turn into fertilizer for our flower garden, so we will always have a piece of Rascal to make our day lilies beautiful. Let's not hold the shell because we don't want to interrupt that process. Would you like some candy?) Clearly the questions were exhausting me!

Rascal was buried on Saturday. After Brooks's indoor soccer game, all five of us gathered in the garden in the backyard. We each shared our favorite story of Rascal's life and examples of how great Brooks was as his owner. Even Brooks, with tears pooling in his eyes, started telling stories, which had us all laughing. We prayed Rascal's favorite prayer, the Our Father, and we said a Hail Mary for good measure, too. My husband pressed play on the ipod dock and the Veggie Tales playlist that Brooks picked out for the funeral filled the backyard. Rascal's favorite song, according to Brooks, ended the funeral: Veggie Tales Cheeseburger Song.

(Chorus)
Coz' your his Cheeseburger,
He's priceless Cheeseburger,
Be back for you-ooo,
He'll be back for you-ooo,
Won't be so long Cheeseburger,
Oh lovely Cheeseburger,
Be back for you-ooo,
Oh he'll be back for you!

(bridge)
Coz' he loves his Cheeseburger with all his heart,
And there ain't nothing gonna tear you two-oo apart,
And if the world suddenly ran out of cheese,
He would get down on his hands and knees,
To see if someone accidenly dropped some cheese in the dirt,
Then he would wash it up for you,
Wipe it up for you,
Clean that dirty cheese up just for YOU!!!!!!

You are his Cheese-bur-GER!!

Song by Veggie Tales. Lyrics courtesy of Lyrics Time

By the end of the funeral, we were all singing the song and smiling. Rascal taught my children about death and grieving, but he also taught all of us the importance of living, laughter and holding those beloved memories close to our hearts. In those 15 minutes, our family was together in a way that we are rarely together. Sure, he was just a hamster, but he was also a brief member of our family.  

I am certainly not a grief and loss expert; however, here are some of the things we have done to help our son during this process:

1.  I prepared for Rascal's death long before he died by taking a lot of pictures, which I printed for Brooks the next day.  I chose two pictures to blow up in 5x7 sizes, which I put into frames for Brooks to prop on his dresser.  I printed the remaining 20 pictures and put them into an inexpensive photo album.

2.  I chose a photo album which could hold more pictures than I needed.  I purchased some lined notecards and some unlined notecards to fit into the photo album.  I invited friends, family and Brooks to draw pictures of Rascal or write funny anecdotes about him.  I slid all of these into the photo album to create a memory book for Brooks.  I also included extra notecards, so Brooks could write down any thoughts that came to him at a later date or draw pictures.

3. I contacted his teacher the very next morning.  She was amazing and hugged him as soon as she saw him.  She told him that he could talk about Rascal anytime or bring in pictures to share with the class.  Brooks chose to speak to his classmates about his loss.  His two best friends also told Rascal stories.

4.  I let Brooks decide when to clean Rascal's cage and how to store it.  Though Rascal died 8 days ago, Brooks only let me clean the cage yesterday as long as I promised to return the empty, clean cage to his bedroom.  Brooks still wants that visual reminder of his beloved furry friend. 

And even though I wasn't with Brooks that night of Rascal's passing, my husband was all he needed that night. And my loving arms and kisses the next morning and following days made up for all the rest.

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  • Crystal, you are so good at thinking on your feet! Your comment about a door connecting hamster heaven to people heaven is genius. I guess I will have this wisdom and insight one day...

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