Those are the four words that broke my heart Sunday afternoon.
Breeze, my 7-year-old daughter, was standing in front of me with tears flowing from her eyes.
I thought maybe her dwarf hamster, Zhu Zhu, was just sleeping. It was the middle of the day, and that’s typically when I would see it napping.
Unfortunately, hamsters don’t nap lying on their backs with their legs sticking up in the air — that was Zhu Zhu’s position when I saw her.
“I fed her. I gave her water. I did everything I could do,” Breeze told my wife, Andrea. “Why did she die?”
I tried to make things better by saying I would get a new hamster.
That only made things worse.
“Just let her be sad for a few minutes,” Andrea said. “She doesn’t need you telling her you’ll buy her a new one — she misses Zhu Zhu.”
Besides some fish and a couple of hermit crabs (definitely disposable pets), this was our family’s first experience with the death of a pet. Even though we had only had Zhu Zhu since Christmas, I knew a funeral was in order.
Andrea and I decided to quickly turn into funeral directors. She prepared a casket (an empty baby formula can), while Breeze and I went to pick up a burial spot. Breeze selected a spot in our yard on the side of our house where it’s shaded most of the day. She said, “I think this would be a perfect place.”
While I dug a small hole, I asked Breeze to let her brother and sister know the funeral would be starting soon. She also invited our 4-year-old neighbor, Colby, to the memorial service. A conversation with Colby had actually initiated this adventure, because Breeze had wanted to show him the hamster.
With everyone gathered around the small hole in our yard, we began the funeral service with Breeze sharing memories of Zhu Zhu.
“She was such a good hamster,” Breeze said as the tears started to flow again. “She was my friend, and she meant so much to me. I’m going to miss her so much.”
Breeze walked from the graveside to Andrea and gave her a big hug.
I asked if anyone else wanted to share any words about the hamster. Colby responded quickly, “I called her Monster Jam!”
I had no idea what that meant, but I said, “thanks Colby, those were powerful words.”
Andrea then asked Breeze if she wanted us to sing a song, and she did — “Amazing Grace.” We sung the first verse and chorus to the classic hymn.
I finished Zhu Zhu the hamster’s memorial service with the following prayer:
“We are so thankful for Zhu Zhu and the five months of life that we shared with her. We had some great times with this little hamster. My favorite memory of her was when she escaped from her cage for an entire day. She was lost for 24 hours, but then she was found. She was found because the Phillips Family loved her enough to keep searching for her. This lovable rodent brought joy into our lives — especially the life of Breeze. We are thankful for that joy, and we won’t forget the memories we made with our first hamster.”
After the prayer, we took Zhu Zhu out of her baby formula casket (out of our concern for the environment) and placed her in the ground. After her burial, Breeze picked rose petals and placed them over the dirt, and Andrea put together a makeshift cross out of two sticks and stuck it in the ground near the tiny grave.
Our hamster funeral may seem ridiculous to some, but death is a difficult thing at any age. Seeing my little girl grieving because her hamster had died was a tough thing. If this little funeral somehow helped her mourn the loss of her “friend,” it may have been ridiculous, but it was worth doing.
James Phillips is managing editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at 205-221-2840 or firstname.lastname@example.org.