Rabbits can become ill and can die very quickly. Sadie, my first visiting rabbit, refused a treat one morning. I was puzzled. By the time I realized the situation was serious, and got her into the vet the next day, I learned she suffered from widespread cancer. We gently euthanized her and felt devastated.
I had a weekly visit scheduled the next morning with middle school special education children. I showed up without a rabbit, heavy hearted with my own grief. I didn’t realize the staff and students would also need to grieve. After I told the story, the students cried, threw tantrums (requiring assistance) and then alternated between singing sad songs, rocking silently and angrily painting giant black/red bunny figures. The principal came in to see how everything was going……looked around the room…..and asked me to bring my “hardy” black Labrador for future visits.
What did I do? What did I say to the students that created such distraction? Well, I tried to be truthful….along the lines of “Sadie didn’t come to visit today because she was sick. It just happened. We took her to a special doctor. Sadly, she died. Sadie loved visiting you and she knew how much you loved her. We miss her terribly.” I tried to be honest. I tried to make it clear that Sadie would not be back. I shared my sorrow. But it wasn’t right…..and it all felt wrong.
How do you get death right?
It was impossible to balance my grief with the expectations of this group of BIB program participants. I was still in shock, and I wanted to cry. What I learned from this experience is that I can’t visit when I am upset and need to be alone. During my time alone, I try to actively grieve. I try to be as present as possible with my feelings, and to allow the loss to process. I can’t “overfunction” and pretend I’m ok. Visiting with rabbits is not a performance. I now keep contact information readily available for each facility I visit and I give as much notice as possible if I must cancel. I also let all my contacts know that emergencies do happen, although thankfully, not often.
I’ve also learned to rotate rabbits. I have five BIB bunnies, so this is an easy way to make sure they all get visiting time. Rotation also prevents some people, and especially children, from not overly attaching to one particular rabbit. When participants ask for a specific rabbit, I often share pictures. Depending on the participants and visiting situation, I may not choose to share that a rabbit died. Maintaining emotional detachment is important. “Oh Daisy? Why, she isn’t with us any longer, but here is Tulip! Aren’t her white ears pretty?” I show enthusiasm for the current visit and focus on the rabbit(s) I have.
Illness, retirement and death are tough, inevitable issues with visiting rabbits. Knowing that your rabbit’s life means so much to others, creating amazing memories, taking pictures…all these can help you stay inspired, healthy, and growing.