Fish aren’t pets. I’ve said this often over the past several years. They can’t be pets because you can’t pet them. At best they are moving decor. More or less like houseplants, you must keep them alive, but they don’t really do anything.
As it turns out, I was deeply wrong. Fish are pets and nothing will drive this home as hard as having to explain the death of a beloved fish to a loving little girl.
The week before last one of the two large goldfish that live in a tank in Fiona’s room died. I’m not altogether certain why. It hadn’t shown any symptoms, it was just dead. I noticed it before Fiona did, and was thankfully allowed a few minutes to consider how to deal with both the fish and the explanation of death.
Now, the disposal of the dead fish was a problem. We’re not talking a carnival gold fish here. My husband was given these fish as “rescued feeder fish” by his sister six years ago. We’re talking about an almost seven inch orange comet goldfish.
I’m left with very few options for getting rid of the dead fish. Burial, but we don’t have a back yard. Trash, but that seems icky and heartbreaking and Fiona would try to retrieve it. And the toilet. I don’t know about you, but I found that my faith in my septic system was only moderate when the task at hand was to accept a moderately inflexible seven inch object.
I was also left with the infinitely harder problem of helping Fiona understand death and why we had to flush her pet down the toilet!
I went with blunt. I’ve read a little about this, and most of what I’ve heard is that any pussy-footing around the subject confuses little kids and makes them worry.
“Fiona, honey, the orange fishy is dead.” I gently led her over to the tank. “He’s not moving anymore. We have to take him out of the tank and let him go.”
“He not moving?” She moves to look.”The orange fishy stopped swimming and died?”
“Yeah, Baby.” I hug her.
“He need new batteries?” She asks, but without enthusiasm. She’s learned this lesson before.
“No, Sweetheart, fish are alive, so when they die there aren’t batteries we can fix.” I say as gently as I can.
“Oh.” She says quietly.
“Do you remember Nemo?” I ask her. “How all pipes lead to the sea?”
“Okay,” I say mentally crossing my fingers. “We’re going to send your fishy to the sea. He is dead, but we can send him back to the sea.”
“Okay.” She says, calm enough that I don’t really think that she understands.
We retrieve the fish from the tank. She asks if she can touch it and I let her. We put it in the toilet. We say goodbye to the fish. I ask her if she wants to flush the toilet and send the fish back to the ocean and she agrees. She flushes the toilet.
And the fish disappears. She looks up at me, grief written across her face, “My little orange fishy gone? All gone forever?”
“Yeah, Baby.” I nod sadly.
“Ohh!” She cries. She falls to the floor, face down, sobbing.
I hold her and comfort her and cry myself because you’d have to have a heart of stone not to in the face of her grief. She eventually calms.
She asks me questions about alive and dead and what her fish will do in the sea. I duck the last question, asking her what she thinks happens. She says that her fishy is going to look for the turtles and sharks and will swim again in the sea. It’s good enough for now. There will be time later to understand.
For the next couple days I keep close, she has questions and nightmares.
“Mommy, my little orange fish stopped swimming and died?”
“No, Baby, he died, then stopped swimming.”
“I go in pool and stop swimming, I die?”
Fuck! This child sure knows how to break my heart. “No, No, No, Baby. The fish died from something else, not from not swimming. Mommy will never ever let you get hurt in the pool. The lifeguards would help you too. If you stop swimming in the pool, either Mommy or a lifeguard will help you. You will not die.”
“Okay.” She nods carefully, her eyes full of tears. “Mommy, I miss my orange fishy.”
“Me too, Baby. Me too.” And I hold her with tears in my eyes, because her grief is just as contagious as her joy.