“Mommy, what’s wrong with my fish?”
Gretchen called me from the other room. As I walked in, I could already predict what the fish is doing: floating on its side at the top of the tank.
“What’s it doing?” I asked, feigning curiosity.
“It’s just floating and not moving,” Gretchen said, tracing her finger along the glass bowl. “Is she ok?”
How on earth do I explain to my three-year old daughter that her fish has died and won’t ever swim again?
“Um,” I say, struggling to find that right words to make death clear to her. I kneel next to her, hoping this story will help. “Do you remember Grandma Jamie?”
She looks at me utterly confused. “I thought there was only Grandma Natalie and Grandpa Daniel.”
“Well, now there is. Grandma Jamie died when you were just a baby, so I don’t think you would remember her.”
She continued to look at me, “She died?”
“Yes, Gretchen. Do you know what happens when you die?”
She shook her head. I took a deep breath as I try to figure out a way to explain this. I grabbed Gretchen’s little hand and placed it on her chest.
“You feel that?” I asked, trying to smile as I feel her tiny, pulsing heartbeat. She looked down at her hand.
“Yes! What’s that mommy?”
“It’s your heart. I have one too,” I said as I took her hand and put it up against my chest. “Can you feel mine?”
She smiled even wider. “Yes.”
“Well, when you die, your heart doesn’t do that anymore,” I said, hoping to see some kind of understanding in my daughter’s eyes.
“It stops?” she asked, tilting her head to the side like a puppy.
“Yes, it stops. And when a heart stops, then the body becomes very still and won’t move again.”
“Is that what happened to my fish? Her heart stopped?”
“Well, heart’s are very powerful things. Sometimes they work too hard and that makes it so they can’t work anymore. Or in Grandma Jamie’s case, her heart was very old so it stopped because it had been beating for so long,” I said.
“What does that heart do after it stops?”
Finally a question that is easier to answer.
“It waits until it is time to go to heaven,” I explained, relaxing now that it seems to be making sense to her but without making her scared.
“Is Grandma Jamie’s heart there?”
“Then how does my fish get to heaven if her heart stopped?”
“We will have a funeral for her. Funerals pass on those who die to heaven.”
With that, Gretchen picked up the fish bowl and asked me where the funeral would be.
“For fish, the way they get to heaven is through the toilet.”
I felt weird saying it, but it’s true. Gretchen walks over to the bathroom, holding the tank very carefully. I followed, making sure Gretchen didn’t dump the tank into the toilet along with her beloved fish.
“Let me help you, babe.” I slid my hands around the tank until I could easily scoop the fish out of the bowl and dropped it into the toilet. “Would you like to say good bye?” I ask Gretchen.
She waved at the unblinking fish and yelled, “Enjoy heaven, Dory!”
Then she promptly, and delightedly, flushed the toilet.