At the beginning of the pandemic, just before everything shut down the first time, my Daughter purchased a pet fish for Little Guy and the Donasaurus -- something to occupy a bit of their time with minimal effort on Mom's part.
It was proudly named "Red Fish," even though it was a blue Betta. The boys learned to feed it properly and spent many hours simply watching the fish -- they also talked with it quite a lot. Red Fish became part of the family.
Nearly two years later and Red Fish has died.
At a recent family dinner, Little Guy was looking at a book and pointed at the gumball machines mistaking them for fish bowls -- they really did look like fish bowls and he's had limited exposure to gumball machines in the past year and a half! Anyway, Little Guy's excited statement to go home to feed Red Fish was met with a significant silence....
Mom and Dad had to tell him that Red Fish died and was not able to come home.
I've always known my Little Guy is tenderhearted, but it was quite wrenching to watch his grief grow as he tried to understand the loss of Red Fish. While I was doing the dishes, Little Guy came up to me to say "Red Fish is dead and cannot come home," with a puzzled look on his face and the beginning of tears in his eyes.
I would do anything to ease that pain if I could -- really, I would much prefer Little Guy never experiences grief, but such a desire is not even wise.
Don't Gloss Over Loss
Little Guy's Mom and Dad were wonderful in how they explained Red Fish's death. They helped him to work though his grief by talking about Red Fish and encouraging him to do something to remember the pet. Little Guy agreed painting a picture of Red Fish would be helpful -- out came the watercolors!
I am so proud of my Daughter and Son -- even though they were surprised by the depth of Little Guy's grief, they were right on the mark in teaching him that loss of a pet hurts, but there are helpful ways to ease the pain. And I am really proud they did not go to the "we'll get you another fish" as a way to gloss over the loss.
Little Guy did eventually ask for another fish.
Today, we received pictures of Little Guy sitting in front of the aquarium just watching "Black Fishy," as well as pictures of several fish portraits painted by Little Guy. And Black Fishy is well on the way to being a family member since it has also "listened" to many books Mom read to Little Guy.
My Daughter and Son refer to the pandemic as the "big germs." Little Guy can understand this idea since they have used the phrase "big emotions" whenever he is overwhelmed by his feelings. Just as they talk about the ways we protect ourselves from the "big germs" by washing our hands, wearing a mask, and getting a shot when possible, they talk about ways to experience and behave with "big feelings."
Affirming a child's emotions - joy, anger, grief -- and teaching them how to experience these emotions are essential steps to developing strong social-emotional skills. Don't make the mistake of thinking our little ones do not feel as deeply as older children - they do, but they do not know how to experience these emotions in a healthy manner unless we show them the way.
Death is a difficult concept for little ones, but they do understand when a pet or someone they love will not come home. There are many resources parents can use, but keep it simple when talking with them. Listen, comfort and help them to put into words their feelings. Talk about ways to remember or honor the pet, friend or family member who has died.
And it takes time to heal -- grief kicks even out little ones in surprising ways and at surprising moments, so be ready to listen and offer comfort many times in the process.