I always thought that when a fish died, it would float to the top of the tank. Last week, when I was picking up my daughter’s room, her fish was on the bottom of the tank, not moving. If she (according to my daughter, the fish was clearly a girl) were dead, she would float, right? Maybe it was just resting. Maybe fish are like horses who lie down when resting. Although I had every pet under the sun as a kid (dogs, cats, ducks, guinea pigs, a pony, the list goes on), I never had a pet fish. I dug through memories for any prior experience with a dead fish. Dead fish at the lake floated, right?
I had heard friends talk about the inevitability of a pet fish’s death, but I wasn’t prepared for it yet. Pearls, the fish, wasn’t a very active fish. I decided to wait a few minutes. I left my daughter’s room to pick up another room (yay!). Ten minutes later, I mustered the courage to go back and check again. Not only was she dead, but it was obvious she had probably been dead for a while (she looked slightly decayed), and we hadn’t noticed. Oops.
This was our first fish death, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it. Do I empty the tank while she’s not looking? Do I let her see the dead fish? She’s only six. Will she understand that her pet died? Will she be upset or will it be over her head? I texted my husband, hoping for words of advice. He said he would pick up a new fish on the way home. But that seemed like the wrong answer to me. After a few agonizing minutes of internal debate, I decided I should leave the fish in the tank and show it to her.
I pulled her aside and told her I had some news. I took a deep breath and told her that Pearls, the fish, had passed on. Then I asked her what she thought we should do. I waited for what seemed like forever. In a simple and straightforward (read: duh, mom!) way, she said, “I think we should put her outside for the coyotes to eat.” Not exactly what I was expecting, but, hey, she’s six. I countered with, “Maybe we should bury Pearls and have a funeral?” After less than a second, she said she thought that was a great idea. And could she make a headstone? That would be fun! My son, in an unusual moment of empathy, said, “I bet fish heaven is like an all-you-can-eat buffet.” This sparked a discussion on what a fish would eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I began to feel like the ringmaster in a how-to-deal-with-a-pet-death circus.
I googled information on kids and grief to get an idea of what was normal. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, “When a family member dies, children react differently from adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters who die and come to life again. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know.” So she was still hanging with the pre-schoolers. And this was a fish, not a family member, exactly, but her response, while not what I expected, was in the range of normal.
Over the next few days, she began to absorb, to an extent, what had happened. We buried Pearls in the back yard under a pine tree and placed a headstone (a painted rock) over the grave. She wanted to visit Pearl’s “soul” a lot at first, and now she has moved on to talking about the next fish.
I’m relieved that we have the first pet death out of the way, but I’m wondering about how other people have dealt with the death of a furry or scaley friend. And if in ten years’ time my kids are going to tell me that I handled it all wrong. And they still have nightmares about a partially decayed pet fish sloshing around at the bottom of a fish tank.