03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Handling Death with Kid Gloves

Last year my eight-year-old son R.J. showed me a bird's nest in our silver maple. The wide-girthed tree crowns our modest backyard, an earth-bound shelter for suburban fauna, scrappy squirrels, toothsome chipmunks and commonplace feathered friends.

I decide the nest belongs to robins. Not because I saw anything through the murky blur of my kid's binoculars, but because he found blue eggshells on the ground beneath the nest.

"R.J., help me take out the trash," I say one afternoon, words that I will regret shortly.

I lug the overflowing recycle bin and he pulls the trashcan-on-wheels down our sloped driveway to the street. While I rearrange newspapers running like a creek, R.J. walks back up the drive.

"Mom, come," he shouts. "A baby bird fell out of the nest!"

Sure enough, a fledgling lies on the patio, beak gaped, neck distended, claws curled, a sad thing. R.J. stands transfixed, before breaking off and running erratic circles around the lawn. For a child who cried inconsolably at age three when a car blew up in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his reaction does not surprise me.

"Poor baby bird. He's dead! What're his parents going to do?" says R.J., quick to ascribe sex and parentage to the sorry creature.

This time, I know I cannot say the deceased is going to car heaven. Indeed, I am not sure I can say he is going to heaven at all. Though my husband and I were raised in the Christian faith (him through upbringing, me through schooling), our family rarely participates in organized religion.

"It's OK. Come here," I say reaching for my son who eludes my grasp.

"No, it's not OK. Mom, do something."

What am I supposed to do: administer CPR, call an EMT, get the ASPCA? Think. I grab a plastic bag. Like dog owners scooping poop, I use the sheeting like a glove and pick up the limp bird, so light and frail, still warm in my hand. I run toward the street.

"Don't throw him away!" calls R.J., as if reading my intention to pop the critter into the trashcan.

It is not that I do everything my child says, but I just cannot bring myself to toss the bird. Instead, for want of a quick solution, I slip it in the recycle bin and run back to comfort my son.

"Where did you put him?" he asks in an accusatory tone.

I pause. "Not in the trashcan," I say in a small voice.

"I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU PUT HIM IN THE RECYCLE BIN!" All my son's ire turns on me. Rightfully so. I unceremoniously stuffed a dead bird between the Classifieds.

I remember how traumatized I was to see dead animals at R.J.'s age, like the stray dogs poisoned by animal control in Tehran, Iran. The dogs were freshly dead, lining one side of a sunlit street, filthy flies buzzing around their seeping eyes. I swatted helplessly at the flies, trying to do something, anything, while my nanny dragged me away from the sorry massacre.

"What should we do, R.J.?" I kneel in front of him, taking his hands in mine.

"Bury him."

I get a trowel. R.J. solemnly sets to work and digs a hole in a flowerbed. I gently put the bird in, and then cover it with leaves and soil. R.J. runs off and comes back with a piece of wood, a makeshift grave marker bearing the words "R.I.P. In Memory of Cute Bird" in Sharpie.

My thoughts flash to Oxford where I insisted my dead goldfish be disposed of properly. I flushed Percy down a toilet my freshman year, but only after my friend, a theology student, recited the 'ashes to ashes' prayer, except he substituted 'water to water' for the 'earth to earth' part. Though we laughed until we wept, the gesture was heartfelt and Percy got a proper send off.

I say a little prayer for the fledgling. I do not tell R.J. worms will eat it, though he probably knows. I do tell him that something pretty will grow out of the soil to which the bird has been returned. He is content.

For the rest of the year, I find makeshift graves here and there: dead spiders wrapped like miniature mummies in toilet paper; twigs marking the resting place of earwigs; a neatly folded cardboard sarcophagus containing a dead cricket found in the basement, "In Memory of Dead Cricket, 7/17/08."

This weekend, R.J., now nine years old, returns from his first overnight Boy Scout camping trip. He drank rainwater, cooked over a campfire and slept outdoors in a tent.

"I saw six deer," he says, "Four on the way there, one at the campsite, darting in the trees."

"That's five."

"Oh yeah, I forgot the dead one shot by hunters."

"Oh dear, did you want to bury it?"

"Mom!" he says, rolling his eyes, then as a gentler afterthought, "Well, it was kind of big."