Herding Goofballs: In Life and (Gerbil) Death

Josh Farnsworth
Here it was - an animal the size of a tennis ball leaving me helplessly lost for words.

There was no escaping the obvious. An already gray and dismal day turned drearier with a simple discovery in the living room.

Alone in the house working, I made the unfortunate discovery. There he was. Swedish Gerbil, one of two family gerbils, had drawn his last gerbil breath. Gone was the little ball of energy, who spent his glory days playing with his brother, Patrick (our other gerbil), jumping and hanging from the top of his cage like a daredevil rock climber and destroying empty paper towel rolls by the dozen to make more bedding.

And for fun. Swedish loved himself a good paper towel roll to eviscerate.

My brain tried to figure out what happened. Patrick seemed fine. Side note: After a thorough investigation of the scene, Patrick was cleared of any wrongdoing. However, he was asked to not leave the cage in case I had any other questions.

But mostly my brain went to my two goofballs, who would be coming home in a couple hours. This was the first time my kids would be learning of someone they were very close to had passed on, so the words had to be perfect. Playing out the scene in my head, I didn’t know what to expect. 

Would what I say traumatize them for life? Would they take this loss a million times harder if I botch this? I spent about 10 years of my writing career delivering news, but here it was - an animal the size of a tennis ball leaving me helplessly lost for words.

Forget “the talk”, I thought. This is the real hard talk to have.

(Although, I will save this line for when they are teenagers and I am a bumbling mess trying to explain that fun Pandora’s box of questions).

Death is a tricky subject to broach with young kids and scripting my answer, after thinking of it all afternoon, just seemed like it wouldn’t come off well. What made the news double tricky was the fact that the kids were elated to celebrate their first birthday two days from this grim moment.

After some planning - and cleaning of the cage - I welcomed the kids home and sat them down. I told them Swedish had died. 

From there, two very different things happened.

My oldest son, who was fonder of Swedish, was an emotional wreck for a few hours. All we could do is reassure him that his gerbil buddy was given a good life. He was loved. He was entertained.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, my youngest son did not cry a single tear. Nope. Instead, he had questions. And statements. They were about life and death. They were introspective about his relationship with the gerbils.

Really, he wanted to talk out these feelings. A lot. So much so that he got to the point at dinner when my oldest had finally calmed down, we had to encourage our youngest to perhaps… ya know… maybe chill on the Swedish talk.

Read the room, kid. Read the room. 

But his response was miraculous. He was comforting to his older brother. He even spent several minutes explaining very candidly by the glass of the cage to Patrick what had happened.

Their starkly different reactions to the same traumatic event enabled us parents to point out something very important that I hope they carry with them: we all mourn differently, but if we mourn together, we can help each other through anything. No response is wrong. We’re all just built a little differently.

With a birthday still on the horizon for Patrick, we opted to have a Gerbil Celebration of Life. In other words, the kids got to pick what we ate for dinner and dessert. We also talked about Swedish and the joy he brought to us.

Oh, and that other thing.

“This means we are getting a new gerbil, right??!”

Yeah, but maybe we wait to get excited about that until after our celebration dinner is over.

The next day, we decided to have a brief burial service in the backyard. We found a spot near a tree that got more sunlight than most locations in our yard. My oldest even used a rock to carve a headstone out for Swedish on a thinner rock.

You catch yourself sometimes in life, as a parent, in bizarre places under bizarre circumstances. Digging a hole in the backyard and then giving a eulogy for a small rat-like creature is up there.

These are the places that don’t come in the parents’ manual when you sign up. I suppose the best you can do, when death comes around, is to emphasize both the joy they brought and not worry about the trauma of the moment and let your kids express themselves how they need to when hearing that news.

As of this writing, Patrick is doing fine. The Farnsworth family is looking into the best way to introduce a new friend soon. 

And as for you, Swedish Gerbil, thanks for the memories. We’ll visit your handmade burial plot often to say hello.

May the paper towel rolls they provide you in gerbil heaven never end. 

Josh Farnsworth is a husband, father of goofballs Cooper and Milo, goofball himself, and award-winning writer and columnist living in Worcester. He can be reached for column ideas at josh.farnsworth@yahoo.com.