When I went downstairs this morning I noticed that Goldie, our new golden gouramis fish was lifeless at the bottom of the tank. We had only brought her home last week. Naturally, my husband would’ve scooped her up and flushed her, but we remembered that our five-year-old daughter was not yet home. She had spent the night at my parents’ house and I knew that coming home to the death of a pet would create more questions than understanding.
M, our five-year-old, has been faced with more death and grief than a typical child her age. She has had to say good-bye to two of her siblings, her great-grandfather, and is learning to cope with my recent diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis. These are things that I, as an adult, am still learning to process. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be for my daughter.
I suggested to my husband that we wait until M came home before dealing with Goldie. This way, she could be a part of the decision of what to do with Goldie. There has been little choice for M over the past few years resulting in big changes for our family (the miscarriages, chronic illness, seeing me battle postpartum depression). Letting her decide what to do with Goldie would give her some sense of control over the abstract concept of death.
When M got home, I walked her over to the tank and told her that I noticed that Goldie had died.
“I’m not too sure.”
“It is sad. She could’ve been sick when we got her, or maybe coming to live in a new home was too stressful for her. What do you think we should do with Goldie?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we could flush her down the toilet, or bury her…”
“Ya. Let’s bury her.”
Brian fished Goldie out of the tank, and we all had a closer look at her.
M: She smells. I have to breathe through my mouth!
We got on our jackets and headed into the yard. M chose the spot she wanted Goldie to be laid to rest. “Let’s put her here so the flowers can take care of her.” She then exclaimed, “I need to write her name on a stick!” Away she went back inside to get a stick. It was interesting for me to witness her come up with this concept.
“I put a sad face because Goldie died.”
M went back out to mark Goldie’s final resting place. “It’s sad that she died. I wish she could stay on life forever. Jesus is looking after it.” She added a few leaves on top of the grave, and Brian added a cross.
I certainly never imagined holding a funeral for a pet fish, but M has seen more loss in her life than she can comprehend. Walking her through the death of Goldie, allowing her to make the decisions, ask questions, and naming emotions with her, enables her with coping strategies. Brian and I explained that all living things die, nothing lives forever. While it is sad, it is a part life. We want to normalize death for our daughter. It is nothing to fear. It is also important for us to be factual to help her understanding. Goldie did not “go to sleep” or is just “resting for a long time.”
We let M know that Goldie’s body stopped working. Her heart stopped and she stopped breathing. When that happens to an animal, or a human, it can’t live anymore. Walking through this process together allows us to grieve together. While a death in the family may be difficult, I believe it is important for our daughter to see how we as adults grieve. Now in all honesty, Brian and I weren’t really affected by the death of Goldie, but we knew that the way we reacted can influence M’s responses to death in the future. I took the time to follow M’s lead and stay by her side. Brian was very practical in the arrangements for Goldie.
The death of a pet can be a big loss, especially for a preschooler. Death is also very abstract for a young child. If there’s any way we can help make the concepts of death and loss more concrete for M, we’ll continue to do so, even if it means having a fish cemetery in our yard.
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