How to Talk to a Young Child About the Death of a Pet Fish
We knew this day would come. Truth be told, we thought it would be a whole lot sooner.
Instead, our little goldfish out swam all of our expectations, floating onto bluer waters nearly five years after his purchase.
We were sad to see Trey go, and we were also a little concerned. How do we explain the death of our goldfish to our young son? Will he understand the disappearance of his fishy friend?
How Children Comprehend Death (Newborn to Age 9)
Newborn to Age 3
Age 3 to Age 6
Age 6 to Age 9
No understanding of death
Thinks death can be reversed
Thinks death is contagious
Perceives sadness, anxiety in home
Has difficulty with abstract concepts
Asks concrete questions, but abstract concepts still difficult
May exhibit eating changes and crying
May exhibit regressive behavior
May connect death with violence
May exhibit signs of irritability
May act out feelings
May blame self
There's Something Fishy Going On
After calling a close friend to fish for advice and discussing it with my husband, we developed the plan of action for talking to our son about the death of his fish.
I'm happy to report, we're all still swimming.
Here are a few ideas based on our experience:
1. Don't Tell a Fish Tale
Be honest—to a point. A lot depends upon your child's age and ability to comprehend existential concepts like life and death (see table above).
But you would be surprised how much a child understands.
We explained to our son, who was three years old at the time, that Trey was very old and tired, and that he died and wouldn't be around anymore. We added: "He had a very good life," to which my son responded: "Not anymore!"
See, he gets it!
2. Involve Your Child in the Funeral Process
As we prepared for our burial at sea, I debated whether my son would be traumatized by watching Trey go down the drain. Strangely enough, he was so excited to get permission to flush something other than the normally permitted potty items, he quickly forgot he was sad.
The next morning, he ran into the bathroom to see if Trey had come back. Upon finding nothing when lifting the lid, he went on about his normal bathroom business.
A few days later my mother asked him if Trey went to live in the ocean with his friend Nemo. My son answered, without missing a beat: "No grandma, he went down the toilet."
3. Remember, There Are Other Fish in the Sea
Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, we make promises we don't intend to keep. "I'll get you that report by 5 p.m." "Tomorrow I won't have a headache."
While I don't condone either of those scenarios, I am especially serious about the next one: Don't offer to buy your child a new pet unless you really intend to follow through.
Don't assume that your son and daughter was too caught up in the grief of the moment to remember your promise. Kids are like the Internet. If you put something questionable out there, I guarantee it will eventually come back to bite you.
Tip: If you really don't want another pet fish, try to avoid carnival games that give goldfish as prizes. As you can see from the photo at the very top of this hub, that's how we ended up with Trey II (who was very soon after replaced by Trey III).
Death Is a Fishy Business
The issue of death can be difficult at any age. I can only imagine my story would be very different if we were dealing with the death of a parent, grandparent, (or even one of our cats).
Since I can only speak on my own personal experience, here are some great additional resources:
Articles on Dealing With Death
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.