When my son’s fish died, I realized there was more I needed to teach him about grief

Glen Henry is an In The Know by Yahoo parenting contributor. Check out his site, Beleaf in Fatherhood, and follow him on TikTok and Instagram for more.

My oldest son Theo, 8, got his first pet, a betta fish, a couple of years back. He named it Flash because it was red and would scurry whenever you walked by. Theo doesn’t have many chores, but the one thing he is supposed to do every day is feed Flash.

One day, when he walked up to the betta’s tank, there was no scurry, no darting around the tank as if to say hello. Still, Theo attempted to feed his fish. He checked back a few minutes later, and the little pellets of fish food floated on the surface of the bowl. He didn’t know it, but Flash had died.

Immediately, I had to break the news to Theo. “Theo,” I said, “it looks like Flash isn’t moving, and he might not be alive.” Theo looked in the tank and said, “Really?”

“Yes, but just to be sure, let me see if he moves,” I said.

I grabbed the good ol’ green fish net, brushed past Flash’s side and said sadly, “Yes, he is dead, buddy.”

Out of nowhere, Theo’s little brother Uriah screamed, “YOU KILLED IT!” pointing at Theo because so often he had to be reminded to feed his fish.

A critical moment

Theo seemed largely unaffected by his pet’s death. I couldn’t relate because as a child, my pet goldfish was my best friend, as I didn’t have siblings at the time. I would talk to the fish as if it could understand me, and I took its death pretty hard. I realized, though, that this wasn’t a matter of Theo not caring for his fish, but rather a lack of understanding about death itself. I knew it was a critical moment we would need to address together.

My goal wasn’t to make Theo feel bad or guilty about Flash’s death, but I did want him to have reverence for what happened. Also, I was inspired by how much this moment could teach Theo. So I went to my closet, found a suit I could fit into, picked out clothes for the rest of my family and planned a funeral for Flash.

I went outside and found a good-sized rock with one flat side and asked Theo to paint it and write Flash’s name. I wrapped the fish in a brown paper bag and asked his brother to be the pallbearer. Then we all got dressed up and went into the backyard to have a little ceremony for the fish.

The ceremony was cute. My daughter dressed in all black and put on one of my wife’s big hats, resembling a mother of the church. I sang a song for Flash, and Theo said a few words. I think my intention was to make space for Theo, just in case there were any feelings that could possibly come out. 

“One of the single most difficult things I have ever experienced in my life”

Recently, I lost my sister Britni (pictured top right) after her courageous battle with breast cancer. It has been one of the single most difficult things I have ever experienced in my life. As her older brother, I’m supposed to be able to protect her, comfort her and keep her safe. It was a feeling of helplessness I’d never known and don’t wish upon anyone. Explaining pain like that to children is difficult, especially when they don’t fully understand death. I knew it was time for a difficult conversation with my kids.

@beleafinfatherhood

#stitch with @beleafinfatherhood #greenscreen Britni was 35 she has 4 kids and a husband. I held her hand as she took her last breath I’m not OK.

♬ original sound – Beleaf N’ Family

When we sat down to talk about Britni’s passing, though, my kids weren’t as unprepared as I was for the conversation. We explained that Britni had passed and would be buried. Theo looked up at me and said, “Like Flash?” I saw the lights go on in Uriah’s eyes, too, as both of them now understood the gravity of the situation. 

This is not a happy story or even a good one. No one likes to talk about death, even as adults. It’s big and scary, and it stirs up waves of pain and panic in the people left in its wake. This story is, however, a parenting victory for me. To know that my children are internalizing the conversations we are having, especially the hard ones, gives me confidence that when they encounter pain like this, when they feel as though they cannot go on, they’ll have a moment with me to cling to.

To feel less alone in the world

I hope the memory of that moment is one they can call on when they need to feel less alone in the world. I hope they go into the world feeling as though I prepared them the best that I could with what I knew, and that they’ll always have the confidence that comes when you are a member of a family that actually talks ardently with each other.

As parents, we owe it to our children to be forthcoming about the happenings of the world, even when we may feel unprepared to talk to them about it. Children are much more resilient than we give them credit for, and their capacity for understanding is much higher than we think. 

Above all, hug your people tight and let them know what they mean to you — and teach your children to do the same. Teach them to value people while they’re here and honor them after they’re gone, because they deserve to know the gravity of loss and love so they can understand what a true and wonderful gift it is to be alive.

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