About five years ago, my husband and I were at the Foster City Art & Wine Festival. At that time, we were just dating and still having a blast trying to impress one another. So, we made our way toward the Carnival tables and started dropping way more money on stupid games than one should ever spend. Our last stop was the toss-the-penny-in-the-bowl-and-win-a-goldfish game. My husband was up first. Missed. I was up next. CLINK! My penny made a solid landing right inside a glass bowl. Yay! We won ourselves a disease-infested goldfish!
The goldfish was given to us in a tiny little plastic tank. My animal-loving heart started aching and I begged my then boyfriend to make a stop at Petco for a bigger “home” for the little dude (whom we named “Carney Cruiser,” or “CeCe” for short). My husband made me a deal, “If CeCe lives for a week, we can upgrade him.”
And, almost three years ago, CeCe became one of DJ’s pets. In fact, he’d been living in her room for the past several weeks. She spent many a night staying up late talking with him. She always reminded us to feed him, and alerted us to when it was time to clean his tank. She really cared for him, which is why is was pretty devastating when I found him at the bottom of his tank on Friday night.
I quietly alerted my husband and we agreed to hold off on telling DJ until the morning. My stomach was in a knot all night because I’d never been through this as a mom before. I’ve never been the one to have to tell my child that her pet died. We talked through our options: Remove CeCe from his tank while DJ was sleeping and tell her that he died (leading her to believe that things disappear when they die), not tell her at all and just replace CeCe with another goldfish, or tell her the truth and allow her to help guide us in how we handle the rest.
We opted for the honest route. After our pancakes on Saturday morning, I said, “DJ, so something kind of sad happened. CeCe died.” The conversation lasted much longer than we expected, as DJ had a ton of questions about why he died, where he went, why God took him, etc. She wanted to see him, so we were really glad we hadn’t flushed him in the middle of the night. She broke down in tears, which broke our hearts in two. I felt her pain pierce through every fiber of my body. My daughter had lost something she truly cherished. CeCe wasn’t coming back. She had to face death.
We suggested we bury CeCe so that DJ could visit him whenever she wanted. We allowed her to choose a special place in our backyard, and we made a little box to lay him to rest in. We invited DJ to place special objects in this box that would stay with CeCe. So, she chose a tiny apple from our backyard tree:
And, drew him a special picture, which we folded up and put in his box:
Then, we dug a hole in the special spot that DJ chose underneath our apple tree. While it looks kind of creepy now, in the moment, it felt right – necessary, even – to have DJ help break the dirt:
We then talked a long, long time about why we were burying CeCe because suddenly the idea of parting with him and leaving him in the ground was very upsetting to her. We told her that he had gotten so old that he couldn’t swim anymore, and that he needed a special place to rest. We let her know that he’d be safe in the ground, and that laying him there would give us a place to visit whenever we really missed him. After answering all of her questions to her satisfaction, she decided she was ready to let him go (Her sad face here just breaks my heart):
We then concluded CeCe’s burial by placing DJ’s special windmills on top of his site, along with some Gerber daisies from the vase on our kitchen table. We said a prayer, and asked God to take good care of CeCe as he swam in heaven’s biggest tank. “He was a good fish.” (It was really cool, too, as we stepped back and looked at CeCe’s plot, the windmills started spinning and DJ gasped with wonder. We told her that it was CeCe thanking her for such a comfortable resting spot, and she seemed really proud):
DJ seemed to have found some peace – or, at least, came full circle in her understanding of the event. It was so interesting to watch her go through the process of mourning. Her questions eventually stopped, and she just made comments here and there, like, “I miss CeCe,” or “I hope the racoons won’t get CeCe.” She even confided in a friend of ours by blurting out, “My fishy died.”
By the end of the weekend, Daddy was buying new fish:
We welcomed “Lemon,” “Grape,” and “Peach” into our home, and watched as DJ smiled from ear to ear once her dresser top again had life:
While there’s really no manual on how to explain death to children, we opted for the route that we hoped would serve DJ well as she surely faces this challenge again and again and again in her lifetime. We wanted to give her a safe place to explore her emotions regarding loss. It was important for us to remember that while CeCe was just a Carnival fish to us, he was a very loved pet of DJ’s – and we needed to handle his loss with love, compassion and the patience that she needed to process it all.
Now, if Lemon, Grape or Peach kick the bucket any time soon – we’ll just do the ol’ switcharoo.