I thought a dead fish was the worst thing my 5-year-old son could find in his new fish tank.
I was wrong.
An almost-dead fish is so much more unsettling. Its feeble flails give hope that it might somehow regain its strength.
Squishy, one of three GloFish we had bought weeks earlier, was lying on his side when my son saw him and noticed the slightest movement of his mouth. The tears came fast. He begged me to turn off all the lights and ordered his 3-year-old brother to stay quiet so that Squishy could sleep and maybe feel better in the morning. He asked, with pleading eyes, if I thought Squishy would be okay.
A more prepared parent would have used this moment to explain animal life spans. She would have pulled out a children’s book about how first pets never truly leave us. Several have been written under (silly-sounding but) child-comforting titles, such as “Paw Prints in the Stars” and “Saying Goodbye to Lulu.”
I admire that parent.
I am not that parent.
I was exhausted, and my husband was out of the country. I went into survival mode. I lied. Even as Squishy floated on his back, looking at me with those unblinking eyes, I told my son that anything was possible. I then held his hand until he fell asleep, and then immediately sought out the most powerful, free parenting tool available: I posted a question on Facebook.
I needed to know, should I flush Squishy before the kid woke up, or should I wait until the morning and hold some kind of ceremonial goodbye?
The responses were all over the place and were as revealing as they were helpful. There were several flush ’em now advocates. A few suggested switching Squishy for a look-alike. One colleague, who is a much better human than me, suggested we sing an ode.
An ode! There was no way I was going to serenade a fish.
Then my sister left a comment, and it was at that moment that I realized why a song — or frankly even a ceremony — sounded so preposterous to me. She reminded me about Leo.
Experts on child grief warn that to children, the death of a pet can feel as if they have lost a family member or a best friend. Parenting magazines and websites are filled with delicate steps to take in these situations, differentiating the advice based on a child’s age and ability to understand the loss.
A 3-year-old, one site advises, may need to be told that death, unlike sleep, means a pet will not come back. That advice is followed by a warning — because parents don’t already have enough stress — that common reactions to this new knowledge “include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress.”
An expert on another site suggests parents discuss their own feelings and share stories about their childhood pets. It’s probably great advice. It was also probably written by someone who hasn’t pushed those memories down deep — for a reason.
My mom’s job as a code enforcement officer and my dad’s work repairing electronics left them with limited energy to deal with their four children’s drama, let alone pet problems. When my rabbit suddenly disappeared, my dad said it ran away, and my brother told me we had eaten it the night before for dinner. For years, I wasn’t quite sure whom to believe.
When we lost two parrots after an unusually cold Texas night in a house without central heating, before any tears could fall, they were plopped in a cardboard box and buried in our backyard.
And then there was Leo, our beloved chow .
He had been with our family for years and filled many happy childhood memories. But really, he belonged more to my older sister than to any of us. She was the one who begged my parents to get him and who promised to feed him every day. When he died, there was no question she would be the most devastated — if someone had thought to tell her.
She was away at college at the time, and for some reason, no one filled her in on that important piece of information. Instead, we did what no expert has probably ever suggested. We picked out a new chow, named him Bear and just let her discover him in Leo’s place when she came home that summer.
“And people wonder why I have trust issues,” she wrote on Facebook when I solicited advice about Squishy.
She was joking, but out of all the responses I received that night, hers was oddly the most helpful. At a time when maybe too much advice is available to parents, it was a reassuring reminder of parental missteps and of children’s resiliency. My sister went on to graduate college, find a successful career and raise three wonderful children, four if you count her much-doted-on dog. And really, how could I possibly handle a dying fish worse than the Leo situation?
Knowing my son wakes up with the sun and sometimes before it, I decided to spare him from possibly finding a dead fish without me. I scooped Squishy into a glass, gave him one last flake of food (who knew, maybe he would regain his strength) and when my son woke up in the morning, we checked on him together. At 6 a.m., Squishy was mercifully gone.
He had a good life, I told my son, but it was now time for us to say goodbye and send him to the ultimate fish tank, the ocean.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “That way a bigger fish can eat him.”
Just as I was about to bask in his maturity — and mentally mock those parents who wasted money on books — I noticed the tears rolling down the 3-year-old’s cheeks.
“Does everything die?” he asked.