Grieving and the Preschooler: Lessons From a Fishbowl

By Suzanne Hughes

Every year I dread Hometown Days in San Carlos. My oldest daughter, Grace, counts the days till we can stroll down to the local carnival at Burton Park and wade through a sea of familiar faces until we find the “Booth.” The one with miniature vases filled with colored water and oversized ping pong balls that contain water-repelling properties. We stand there till my feet ache, my last month’s salary depleted, and somehow the ping pong ball defies all odds, and we get to walk home, fish in hand, so to speak, with the world’s most expensive life-lesson on death and dying.

There is nothing more difficult than saying goodbye, especially to someone or something you love. Even big people find this process overwhelming—filled with intense emotion, anger, sadness, emptiness, confusion and irritability. We avoid these feelings in every day life and after the death of a loved one, we try even harder to evade them. So how can we help our little ones grieve when adults minimally tolerate grief?

This is where the lessons I learned from the yearly goldfish became invaluable in teaching my preschoolers about life and death, and helped me tolerate all the feelings in the grief process as well. My track record with waterborne animals averages 14 days—even with the right water temperature, anti-chlorine drops and appropriate food pellets. Don’t ask me to babysit your fish, but I will give you a rundown of the lessons I learned about dead fish, grief and the preschooler, thanks to my then three-year-old Grace and her obsession with the fish booth.

Grace won a fish with minimal pocketbook damage when she was three. The fish made it home and was successfully transferred into a fish bowl. Grace loved the fish. I can still see her wide-eyed face magnified from the glass. She even wanted to sleep with the fish. I am glad she didn’t because it died by morning. She was devastated and asked, “What happened to the fish?” I responded that it was “no longer with us.” She asked, “Well where is it at then? Did it go to Olivia’s house?” Her best friend had been awe-struck with the fish the day before and she figured it swam over to her

I was a relatively new mom and it had been ten years since I took a course on developmental psychology. Children between the ages of 3-5 don’t understand abstract terms like “passed away” or “no longer with us” or “in their house in the sky.” You have to use concrete terms and as hard as it is to say “the fish died,” you must. Death is a part of life, and teaching this concept to our children is one of our jobs. Children have the opportunity to become accustomed to death so that one day they can walk side-by-side with the grieving and love and support them. This will one day make them a good spouse or a good friend and it is our job as parents to teach them these lessons and it starts with simply labeling the loss. Unfortunately, that word is death.

Lesson 1: Use clear terminology

Year two was a rough year. Grace was four and looking forward to her new fish at the fair. The Hughes family single-handedly supported the sponsors of the booth that year and walked away with a goldfish that should have been covered in gold for the price we paid. “Lucky,” as we called him, lived with us for two weeks and seemed to be strong as an ox. I thought he would be with us for a while. Lucky was a strikingly handsome fish; his speckled head and bright orange body drew me in. He sat proudly on the kitchen counter and I knew I was getting attached when I would spend countless hours hypnotized by his movement. I cut celery with him, drank coffee with him; he was there every night when I made dinner. But Lucky was not so lucky after all; I awoke with Grace’s little face in mine at about 6:00 am. In a dispassionate voice she said, “Lucky is dead. Can you make me a bagel?” She seemed so cold and uncaring. How could she dismiss the last 14 days we shared with this creature? No emotion, no fanfare; she was over it. I wanted to talk about the fish and what he meant to me and she just wanted a bagel and cream cheese. Was I raising a cold-hearted child?

As it turns out, Grace was textbook normal. Finality is not a concept that a four-year-old can comprehend. Nothing is forever. She understood and used the language of a permanent ending, but didn’t translate that into an emotional reaction or loss. Preschoolers’ emotional processing of loss can be extremely varied. They can have massive uncontrollable tantrums when told of a loss, or they can keep on building a Lego castle without batting an eye. You need to check in and follow their lead while giving them tools to deal with missing that person or pet. Their reactions can be delayed or non-existent. I, on the other hand, felt sad and longed for my culinary companion, and I tried not to project my feelings on my daughter.

Lesson 2: Expect unexpected reactions from yourself and your child. It is difficult for them to truly conceptualize finality at this age.

In year three, I opted to limit out-of-pocket expenses and gave Grace $10 to try her fate at the fish booth. After 15 minutes of torture and a five-year-old crumpled in defeat, I tried my hand at the booth and sure enough I hit the big one. Our prize was “Lincecum,” a gargantuan goldfish thanks to my miraculous ability to direct the ping pong ball in the mother of all vases. She toted that beast through Hometown Days with a radiant smile. Friends oohed and aahed and I was thinking, “I hope big means hearty—poor thing, his life expectancy just was cut dramatically. “After all the trauma from well wishers man-handling him in the bag, poor Lincecum only lasted a few days at the Hughes household.

Grace informed me with tears in her eyes that our new, large aquatic family member had died. We all came together in the bathroom and took turns saying something nice about Lincecum before we flushed him. It was a tender family moment and reminded me how important it is to ritualize a death. We tend to want to protect our little ones from the pain of death by minimizing their need to publicly say goodbye. Funerals bring closeness and closure. Funerals bring honor and remembrance. These ceremonies are valuable tools for grief—don’t miss out when these opportunities arise.

Lesson 3: Create a ritual to celebrate and mourn the life of the person or pet who died.

Whenever you bring home a pet, not only are you bringing home a lesson in responsibility, care, love and nurturing, you are bringing home a lesson on how to say goodbye. Albeit painful, grieving is the biggest character developer in humankind and a great opportunity to help chisel our children into compassionate big people. Now I am just trying to figure out how to answer Grace’s last question: “Do I get flushed down the toilet when I die?” Back to the drawing board…

Suzanne is a mother of three girls, wife to Eric and marriage family therapist in San Carlos. She is the director of Transitions Counseling Center which has eight uniquely qualified therapists for children, adolescents and adults. Suzanne specializes in grief, trauma and depression. She works extensively with writing and loss. Check out her grief share Web site at