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The Awful Truth

There was something horribly, irreparably wrong with Galadriel the fish.

Her (er… his?) body completely still, floating at the top of the fishbowl.  Gills closed.

The Wolvog discovered her lifeless body when he ran upstairs after school to check on her, as he does every day after school.  Only this time, he ran into the kitchen crying and told me that something was wrong and I had to come upstairs quickly.  I climbed the stairs silently cursing the life cycle.

The ChickieNob came upstairs with her friend, and the four of us stood around the fishbowl while I drew in breath to start explaining to them that even deeply loved fish won at Purim carnivals are not exempt from the circle of life, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  And that is when the ChickieNob’s friend, let’s call her Brenda, smiled beatifically and said, “this is a very very good thing.”

I paused, waiting for her to break the news to the twins that Galadriel was going down the toilet tonight.  She beamed at them.  “Your fish is about to have babies.”

“Really?” the ChickieNob breathed, breaking into a smile.

“Really?” I asked, doubtfully.

“Oh, yes, this has happened to me all the time.  Sometimes, when a fish is about to give birth, she just lies down on her side like that, very still, for two or sometimes even three days.  And then, one morning, there will be another fish in the tank.”

“Really,” I repeated, my hand on my phone.

“It’s going to be great.  You guys, you’re about to get a little baby fish!”

Were we.

So I sent the kids downstairs to have a snack and then crouched in my bedroom’s bathroom, the farthest point in the house from the kitchen.  I closed the door and called my friend, Brenda’s mother.  “What’s up?” she asked immediately since I had just texted her moments earlier to tell her that pick up had gone fine and we were in my house.

“I have a fish situation.”  I explained Galadriel’s state to her and what her daughter had said.  There was a pause and then my thoughts were confirmed.  “Mel, your fish is dead.  I mean, do you know how many times we’ve replaced her fish?”

“That’s what I thought,” I hissed.  “Are you meaning to tell me that you go out and replace the dead fish and then get a bunch of babies?”

“Oh.  No.  Not always.  Sometimes the mother fish eats her babies so it’s just the mother fish replaced.”

“How the hell am I supposed to find a goldfish with these markings?” I asked.

“You don’t.  You just get any goldfish.  And then tell the kids that pregnancy changed her.”

I hung up and called Josh.  “We have a fish situation.”  I filled him in on the state of Galadriel as well as the fact that our kids were currently in the kitchen eating nilla wafers to celebrate the impending birth of their new fish babies.  “We can go two ways.  We can lie and replace the fish tonight, but you’ve got to do this tonight because I don’t want a dead fish floating in the house all day tomorrow.  Or we can just give them the cold hard facts of life.”

We opted to ruin their little worlds and make them mourn the death of their pet.  Not because we’re too lazy to go to the pet store (though, I have to admit that this was not the week for a pet store run) but because they needed to learn how to deal with death.  It’s a part of life.  And we didn’t sugar coat it for them when both of their great-grandmothers died.  We told it to them straight.  They not only deserved to know the truth about their pet, but as a pet owner and a pet lover (I mean, kids who love pets; not people who make love to pets), they needed to know that the love didn’t have an end point.  Love is not only about celebrating moments in life, but it is about remembering in death; about still holding the person — or fish — in your heart after they’re gone.  They needed to experience this stage of the life cycle too even though it meant our evening was going to suck.

“You need to say kaddish,” I told Josh.  “My dad used to say kaddish over my fish before he flushed the toilet.”

“No one prepared me for this,” Josh told me.  “This was not in the parenting handbook; kaddish over fish.”

I told him that I was going to wait to tell them until Brenda went home.  So I gave them two more hours to enjoy the idea that they were about to become the parents to many fish babies (“You may even get up to 10 babies!” was overheard) while I simultaneously planted the idea that something might be very very wrong with Galadriel.  “Let’s wait and see.”

Which meant that I needed to send the Wolvog upstairs to practice his guitar next to a dead fish as if nothing was wrong.

(The Wolvog, many years in the future: “And there was this one time, when I was eight, when my mother totally knew the fish was dead but she still made me go practice my guitar next to it.  She’s a monster.”)

I’m sorry, you guys.  And by you guys, I mean the ChickieNob and Wolvog reading this in the future.  I’m sorry I let you believe Brenda even a little bit, but I also didn’t want to say anything in front of her and ruin her world.  I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you once I was certain that Galadriel was dead.  I’m sorry that I didn’t replace the fish and buy you a few more days/weeks/months/years of innocence.  But mostly I’m just sorry that I had to break your hearts and tell you the awful truth.

Because death really is an awful truth.


Rest easy, Galadriel, our fishy friend


1 Catwoman73 { 03.18.13 at 7:49 am }

I would have done exactly the same thing. Children do need to learn about death at some point, and I believe that you have to teach them about the tough stuff in life as opportunities present themselves. I hope your evening didn’t suck too badly, but even if it did, I’m sure the kids will bounce back quickly… and will probably start bugging you for a new fish before you know it.

2 Chickenpig { 03.18.13 at 8:14 am }

Oh poop 🙁 My kids have had to deal with so many dead fish it’s not even funny. And we would never have been able to get away with the ‘pregnant fish’ story. Our four year old runs around the house shouting “It’s DEAD!!!” She is also fond of telling random strangers that both of her grandfathers are DEAD and that mummies are people that are DEAD. We once tried to comfort one of the twins saying that the mouse we caught in a trap was actually alive and we were freeing it to go to the wild, and she came running in shouting “No it’s not alive, it’s DEAD, traps kill mice it’s dead it’s dead it’s DEEEEAAAD!” Charming, no?

3 loribeth { 03.18.13 at 9:36 am }

Good for you, on both fronts (telling the twins, but also waiting for their friend to leave before you did it). They are old enough to know the truth, sad as it is.

4 Blanche { 03.18.13 at 10:40 am }

It is an awful truth, and I think you handled it excellently. But I have to admit being charmed by the pregnant fish story concocted by the other parents.

Also, I’m reminded of your position on Santa – at least I think it’s your position – that even though they believe he’s not real, that it’s not fair to tell those who still believe that he is real that there is no Santa.

5 Kitten { 03.18.13 at 11:30 am }

Oh, I’m so glad you decided to tell them the truth. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. My inlaws still haven’t told their 3 year old that her cat died. Personally, I think it’s better to teach them early on with pets, than to dump it on them later when a person they love dies.

6 Alexicographer { 03.18.13 at 11:38 am }

Oh dear. I am sorry for your loss. I do think that you did the right thing, though it is of course tempting to want to give, and to have, shelter from that awful truth.

7 m. { 03.18.13 at 11:41 am }

I’m with Blanche. I think you made the right choice. I’m charmed by the pregnant fish story now and I’m guessing it was done on the fly (What do we say? what do we say??), but wince when I think of the complications it might cause for the other parents later. Not a big fan of mixing pregnancy with death, even in a fishy sense.

RIP little fishy. Good luck to Josh. Good job, Mel. It is an awful truth, but the twins are lucky to have you to guide them through it.

8 nonsequiturchica { 03.18.13 at 1:07 pm }

I can’t believe that Brenda’s mother simply replaced the fish with “babies.” That’s hilarious (but also probably not super helpful). Brenda will most likely find out today from ChickieNob that the new fish is not in fact a baby….

9 Bionic { 03.18.13 at 1:24 pm }

Did you ever see the movie My Blue Heaven? Steve Martin as a gangster in the witness protection program, Joan Cusack as a cop? Joan Cusack accidentally sends her kids’ pet turtle down the garbage disposal. She goes to the pet store to get a new one, and she’s poring over them, wondering what to do. The old guy at the counter — also a relocated gangster — correctly divines her intention and says, in a thick ny accent, “trust me, lady, they all look alike.”

You did the right thing here, in my view. But “pregnancy changed her” is pretty priceless. Maybe you can distract Wolvog with that when he brings up the guitar thing in therapy.

10 Tiara { 03.18.13 at 1:36 pm }

Oh no…I’m so sorry your kids had to learn this lesson, especially after the hope given them by Brenda. & How do you handle that? Brenda is sure to learn that Galadriel died instead of having babies. You handled it so well.

11 Josh { 03.18.13 at 1:43 pm }

For the record:
I did not say Kaddish over the fish. In the end it wasn’t necessary for the mourning process (and I must confess I have halachic reservations).

12 Shelby { 03.18.13 at 3:06 pm }

Oh, my. Although I know this was most likely heartbreaking for your kids, this post made me giggle. (I’m sorry) “We have a fish situation.” I still break out into a smile when I think that. I love how you guys chose to give the real facts, but still allowed Brenda’s mom to maintain her position as a parent (even if you let Wolvog practice guitar next to a fish carcass in order to preserve it). If Brenda’s Mom wants to continually repopulate the fish in her house (in the most creative way possible! ha! Love it!), that’s her decision, even if I don’t totally agree with it. You respected that.

Because I work with kids and especially kids who are grieving, it is usually recommended that we don’t try to hide/sugarcoat death from them. I mean, sure, we shield and protect them from things they are not yet ready for, but if an opportunity presents itself for them to experience the end of life in a loving way, then when it is the real deal (like a family member), they’ll be better prepared and have a tool box to draw from. And kids will eventually figure out whether things were handled honestly or otherwise and I think that has the potential to color your relationship/trust with them later on.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.18.13 at 4:49 pm }

You handled it the way I would have, right down to hissing at Brenda’s mom.

I’m also thinking that linking death (albeit obfuscated death) to birth could have unintended consequences.

14 Cristy { 03.18.13 at 5:07 pm }

This post reminded me of an episode of Malcom in the Middle, where Lois and Hal promised Dewey he could have a dog if he kept his fish alive. Turned out he had been killing them left and right, but was sneaking down to the pet store to replacing them in order to keep up the illusion. Scary to think that they couldn’t tell the difference.

I think you’re approach is the better one of the two. As hard as it is to talk with children about death, it’s an important conversation and teaches them an important part of life. I’m also in agreement with Lori: linking death with birth, especially when it’s not factually correct, can have some dramatic consequences.

15 a { 03.18.13 at 5:44 pm }

You crack me up – can I ask why you didn’t have a plan in place already? Everyone knows that goldfish die frequently…

16 Wolfers { 03.18.13 at 6:51 pm }

Sorry- to say but I giggled..remembering my own exposure to death- not fish- but a hamster, named Gus. My first pet ever- I remember finding his body (cold furry body curled like a ball). I kept poking at him, wondering why he wasn’t waking up. I asked mom to check Gus- She looked at Gus and said “he’s dead.” I said “dead?” “yes, dead.” “dead? what’s that?” “He went to sleep and won’t wake up again.”
Well….. to put it this way…I was too terrified to sleep for a long while- waking up repeatedly just to make sure I’m alive, having nightmares of being buried- so I’d insist telling mom who’d come to wake me up from nightmares, “I’m awake, I’m awake! Don’t throw me in trash!”

Yup…. a good way to teach a kid how one dies. 😛

17 Mali { 03.18.13 at 7:32 pm }

I grew up on a farm, and death was a part of life. I don’t remember learning about death – it just happened. So I am glad you told the kids the truth. (I have to say I’m eager to know what gems of wisdom they will come up with when you tell them).

I have to say too that I laughed at Brenda and Brenda’s mom – trying to figure out how the new baby fish arrive, what Brenda thinks happened to the mother (dead) fish. Or is that replaced too? So each dead fish means many new fish in the fish bowl?

And now I feel sorry for Brenda finding out.

18 Tracie { 03.18.13 at 7:45 pm }

I think you did the right thing.

Poor Brenda is probably going to end up asking her mom about all those babies that miraculously appeared in her tank after she finds out that your fish was, indeed, dead. I’m honestly a little freaked out that she said sometimes the fish lies (DEAD) in the tank for three days before the babies arrive. Gross!

19 Queenie { 03.18.13 at 10:07 pm }

Brenda’s mom cracks me up. That’s just so wrong, but brilliantly so. But what’s going to happen when your kids tell her that their fish is dead? Will she figure out the awful truth for herself? Keep us posted!

20 Justine { 03.18.13 at 10:19 pm }

Wow. I hardly know what I’d say to Brenda’s mom. Pregnancy and death? The complications astound me.

My son’s second fish (our neighbor killed the first one when we were on vacation and my son was three) died two days after we got it on Cinco de Mayo. He’d even made a portrait of it. But we talked about death, and went to the store to talk about whether we could have taken better care of it (we couldn’t) and whether something had been wrong with the fish to start (there was). I think it was an important lesson. We got two more fish, one of them for free. They’re doing fine, last I checked. In fact, they’re pretty huge. I hope they’re not planning to have babies.

The same pet store sells guinea pigs, by the way. And it’s not far from the first circle of NJ Hell. Just sayin’. 😉

21 Siochana { 03.19.13 at 1:12 am }

Poor ChickieNob and Wolvog, but yes, this story made me giggle too! I definitely think honesty is better than lying, even about painful topics like death. But I also like how you offered the children a way to acknoweledge/honour the death (even if Kaddish wasn’t said.) That’s very important. Too often we try to deal with death by pushing it way/pretending it doesn’t matter/saying that people should get over it. People have to learn how to talk about and think about death, even though none of us want to.

22 deathstar { 03.19.13 at 2:16 am }

Nam myo ho renge kyo. Galadriel completed her mission in life and like rain will return to the ocean.

23 Ellen { 03.19.13 at 8:44 am }

Well done. While I respect the right of other parents to raise their children their own way, I find the notion of lying to a kid about death bizarre. The truth seems simpler, not to mention a life lesson.

24 Astral { 03.19.13 at 1:43 pm }

I think you handled it well. Children do need to learn about the cycle of life. I did laugh at Brenda’s mom’s take on things.

25 Cherish { 03.19.13 at 6:25 pm }

Wahahaha! Sorry, I know it’s sad that they had to deal with it, but the story just cracked me up. The ridiculousness of getting sucked into another family’s far-fetched lies, practicing guitar next to a dead fish, “pregnancy changed her!”, and a nice dead fish picture at the end.

26 Kathy { 03.20.13 at 12:31 am }

Sorry for your family’s loss. I think you handled the situation well and I echo others’ thoughts about being honest with our children about death, even pet goldfish. We went through something similar earlier this year and I wrote about too: http://bereavedandblessed.com/2013/01/do-goldfish-go-to-heaven/

27 Peg { 03.20.13 at 1:01 pm }

Yeah, so my sister got our 6 year old Liam a fish tank for his birthday (without asking me….ugh) and we all trooped off ot the pet store and got 3 fish and a snail. After 3 days, one of the fish died. I just couldn’t put him through it…he has experienced way too much about loss in his young life. While they were all at school I went and bought a replacement. So far, so good. I feel like I kinda wimped out but I didn’t want his first foray into pet ownership to get flushed so quickly.

With all of the pets in our house (4 geckos, three frogs, fish and cat) we have had our share of death and funerals in the back yard. I honestly think if our family situation was different we would have told him, but I just couldn’t do it.

RIP Galadriel.

28 Battynurse { 03.23.13 at 10:58 am }

I think you did the right thing too. The sucky part about having and loving pets is losing them. To lie about it though doesn’t fix anything.

29 A Passage to Baby { 03.24.13 at 11:28 pm }

I’m one of those weird moms that replaced a hermit crab. Twice. Damn hermit crabs always died when he was at his Dad’s for the summer. One even DID have a baby, but I didn’t know until I found it dead in the back of the shell. After the mom(?) crawled out and died, I didn’t exactly keep replacing the food.

Then one day my son wanted to have his science project about his incredible hermit crab that had lived for years. A science miracle!!!! Apparently he learned in school that the average life span was one year. I had to fess up. He took it remarkably well. I think he was more bummed about the loss of a great science project.

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