Not All Fish Die. Right, Daddy?

sullyanddolos2There’s something particularly disturbing about being on vacation with your family, getting a cell phone call and looking down and seeing that it’s coming from your house.

In this case, it was our cleaning lady, and she had some bad news.

“Jerry, Sutton’s fish is dead,” she told me, sadly. We’d left a 7-day gradual-release food pellet in his tank to cover our absence, but either something had gone wrong with it or it was just his time to go. She graciously offered to run out to the pet store and buy a replacement for us. Drew and I talked it over, then decided we’d handle the arrangements when we got home.

Thanks to some advice I got on Facebook, we decided to be honest with the kids. We also decided to wait until vacation was over.

We managed to put it out of our minds for the rest of the week, unsure how our sensitive, loving little girl would handle her first direct experience with death. Tonight, as we pulled into our driveway, I started to feel sick. It was time to face it.

I can’t claim that my fear of death is more intense than anyone else’s. You all think about it pretty much every single second, right? Right?? I’ve written before how worried I am about my kids finding out about it. Death is one thing I can’t protect them from. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t plan to tell them about Heaven or Nirvana or the idea that hey, things are actually even better when you die!

Death happens. It sucks. Everything else is a mystery.

It’s taken me 42 years to achieve that much acceptance of death, and I’m still terrified of it, of all the ways it could strike me, my family or anyone else I love, at any freaking time.

Bennett named his fish Sulley, after the character from Monsters, Inc. Sutton called hers Dolos, because… well, who the hell knows. After her phase of naming all her dolls Sutton, she’d moved onto a stage where she made up the most batshit names her little mind could concoct.






I don’t know why so many of them sounded Spanish. I’m sure I’ll find out someday that these are all the names of Dora’s woodland friends or something. Until then, I’m going to keep believing she’s some kind of twisted genius.

We didn’t wait long after we got home before we took her in the room and showed her the fishtank. I really think this was the right thing to do. It was pretty obvious from looking at Dolos’ belly-up body that he’d changed, that he was gone.

“Dolos died, Honey,” we explained.

She started to tear up. Through sniffles, she asked, “Can I still feed him tonight?”

“No. He doesn’t need to eat any more.”

“Do you want to go to the pet store tomorrow, so we can replace him?” Drew asked.

She smiled, instantly happy again. “Yes!” Then, she calmed down and asked, “What does replace mean?”

Bennett got choked up, too. We all moved into the bathroom, where we reenacted the Cosby Show fish funeral scene as well as I could remember it.

“Do you know what a funeral is?” I asked the kids. “When someone dies, we gather to remember them and talk about how much we love them.” I suggested we all say something we loved about Dolos. “I’ll go first. I loved how colorful he was.”

Sutton hung her head. “I loved watching him swim.”

A minute later, we flushed him. I’m not sure anyone was as emotional as I was, because I couldn’t focus much on them. I was too busy thinking of all the other funerals I’d been to, of everyone I’d cared about who’d died and of all the funerals my kids would go to in their lives. Of mine, someday, who knows when.

I gathered the kids for one more memorial. They’ve been really fond of the movie version of “James and the Giant Peach” lately. We’d watched it in the car on our way home from the trip. They knew all the words to all the songs, and through them, I had come to as well. I realized the movie provided a perfect elegy for our departed pet, so I played the song “Family” on my iPhone, and we all sat silently and listened to it.

“Do you kids want to play with the iPad now?” I asked when the song ended.

“Yeah!” they shouted. And that was the end of our funeral.

At dinner, the topic came up again. “Not all fish die, right, Daddy?” Sutton asked.

“No, they all die eventually.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Only some fish die.”

“Sulley is never going to die!” Bennett said.

“No, Sulley will die, too,” I told him. “But we hope it won’t be for a long time. That’s why it’s important to show him how much we love him while he’s here.”

As we tucked Sutton into bed a few hours later, still unsure how much she understood about death, she got sad again for a moment. “Daddy, do you know who died?” she said. “My fish, Dolos.”

“I know, Honey.”

She thought for a second. “And do you know what’s another word for burp? Belch. Just like you have around your waist.”

“No, Honey, that’s a belt.”


“Good night, sweetheart. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Daddy.”

22 comments on “Not All Fish Die. Right, Daddy?

  1. I love how you handled this….we had a few goldfish die and we had to have a guinea pig put to sleep….it is always hard but you did a great job.
    LOVE the part about “belch” and “belt” – that’s why I love working with little people. They have a way of pointing out how confusing life really is…..

  2. Don’t you love how quickly their train of thought changes! Some friends were having the talk about how babies actially came out of the lady and decided to go with the honest approach. Their son giggled then moved onto the next topic!

  3. Awesome parenting! i wish we’d had a pet die for our daughter to learn about death – when she was just 2, my brother died suddenly and even though she was 2..she really seemed to get it. she’s 7 now, and still talks about his death and how much she misses him…and how much I must miss him. sometimes the maturity in her brain blows me away.

  4. What an awesome daddy! You did it just right! Thank you for not lying to those precious children 🙂 all you can do as parents is present “just enough” of the truth to satisfy their need for it at a particular time. Good job, great article!

  5. This is too cute. Isn’t it funny how children are so accepting and adults are such over-thinkers? I’m exactly the same. Next time I’m sad I might just start discussing the how ‘belches’ keep your trousers up, adorable. Sounds like you have a great relationship with your kids. Honesty is the best policy!

  6. I have just been through this episode with my daughter – her goldfish died and was buried with all appropriate rites, including a coffin, at the bottom of the garden by two little girls clad in black and armed with spades. I’m relieved – children can process things like this so much more easily that I feared.

  7. Our pet beagle died not long after we adopted our son. Vinnie handled it much better then we did. As I was in the kitchen crying he just walked up behind me and gave the best hug ever.

  8. Your kids are so cool. I guess it’s because their dads are!

    Death is not something that is easy to understand for them, hell, I still struggle with the concept myself. But I found that talking about it as a normal part of life takes a lot of its scariness for the little ones away. I am not sure my little monster emotionally grasps the finality of death but at least he seems to understand on a cognitive level.

    Well-done for the Cosby funeral, I’m sure they’ll get a giggle out of that one day when they see the show.

  9. You did a good job handling this! And a good idea to wait until after vacation so that they could enjoy the vacation without having to think about the fish! I remember when I was 7 my tadpole died and I bawled my head off. She is buried in my backyard to this day,.

  10. This was brutal on all fronts. Sutton cracked a little, which caused my heart – and Jerry’s, too – to break. And while I had to be Strong Dad and take poor little decomposed Dolos out of the tank, I remembered childhood pets, and the overwhelming thought process behind death overtook me, as well. Today, the proverbial ‘Day After’ was tricky, too. Although NewDolos (aka Matilda) is part of the family, now Sutton knows that Roald Dahl is dead, too. And tonight, she asked if I would take her to the cemetery where my grandmother is buried…when she dies. It’s all too much to take, coming out of a barely 4 year old’s mouth. I just hope it’s a phase she’ll outgrow quickly. Because it feels like it’s killing me, too.

  11. Pingback: The Two Stages of Grief (for Preschoolers) | Mommy Man

  12. This was amazing, you totally handled it so well. And I lol’d over the whole belt/belch! lololol This, sadly happened to us, too. I have boys.. I actually had their uncle replace the fish to avoid conflict. (bad mommy) Then it happened again! So I told them very gingerly the whole rotten truth. My oldest son’s reaction (then 4) “OHHH!! MOMMY! Can I be the one to flush him down the toilet?!” sigh.

  13. When my 4yr old son’s fish died we did very much the same “Cosby” funeral. That night in the bath, all of his toys “died” and floated around him. The next day he went to daycare and several of the toys there “died”. Took a few days, but eventually things were allowed to live again.

    • Eek, that’s awful. Glad to hear things got back to normal quickly, though. My kids are still bringing it up a week and a half later. A lot of “Daddy, you’re not going to die for a long time, and I’m not going to die for a long time.” And I say, “Yes. Absolutely.”

  14. Oh I am so sorry that the fish died. You handled it very well. The part where you let her see for herself and then explained to her was smart, I would have done the same. And the “belch” and “belt” was funny.

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