I'm a freelance writer social distancing in the desert with my husband, son, two dogs, a kitten, and the occasional spider.
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 Freeman 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 sudden 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 in mourning. The next morning, he ran into the bathroom to see if Trey had resurfaced. Upon finding nothing when lifting the lid, he went on about his normal bathroom business.
A few days later my mother asked my son if Trey went to live in the ocean with his friend Nemo. My son raised his eyebrow and 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 article, 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 for a child of any age as well as adults. I can only imagine my story would be very different if we were dealing with the death of a parent, a grandparent, or even one of our cats.
Since I can only speak on my own personal experience, here are some great additional resources for talking to your child about mortality:
Articles on Dealing With Death
- How to talk to your preschooler about death
- Kids and Grief: How to Explain Death to a Child
- How to Explain Death to a Toddler
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.
Oli from Oklahoma on January 26, 2016:
My son's fish is on its last leg. I came across this while looking for suggestions on what works and doesn't in the whole death faze. This isn't to sound morbid, but we actually got the fish because we know of their short life span and thought this would be a good first introduction into life and death. I'm sure He'll be upset, but I'm sure he'll deal with the death swimmingly. I hope.
catrina on September 17, 2015:
My sons fish past away when he was at school should i bury it with my son or just tell him hes gone and i buryed him ??pls help
grumpyguppy on December 06, 2012:
Buying another goldfish which looks just like the one before is also an option. Some kids will take it really hard, so I think that my suggestion is the best way to settle it with those kinds of things. You can also say that now, Grandpa and Goldie are having a lot of fun.
A Freeman (author) from Las Vegas, NV on August 02, 2012:
Thank you @Bugg Adventures I definitely agree, though it's much harder to flush grandpa down the potty.
Bugg Adventures on July 30, 2012:
Excellent hub! Voted up! Thanks for sharing. Goldfish or Grandpa...death is death.
TattooKitty from Hawaii on October 11, 2011:
Great advice on how to deal with a dreary subject! As you mentioned, honesty is always the best policy ;)
A Freeman (author) from Las Vegas, NV on October 07, 2011:
I'm consistently surprised and enlightened by just how smart kids are. Sometimes I think they are smarter than adults! Thanks droj!!
droj from CNY on October 07, 2011:
Kids really ARE like the internet! The first death in our family was my wife's grandmother, and we were pretty worried about how our 3 year old daughter would take it. But she got it. I can't help but wonder if they get the concept but can't quite grasp the gravity of it yet. Nice hub!