Explaining Death to Your Kids

The Daddy Files household lost one of its own this week.

Red Death was our betta fish MJ brought home this summer. Will had been asking for a fish for awhile and MJ finally caved. His name—now eerily apropos—is from the movie How to Train Your Dragon because Will loves the mean dragon at the end named, wait for it, Red Death. He had a bowl, some glass marble thingies, a fake plant and a little ship. Other than that I didn’t know much about him. He was fairly quiet and we stayed out of each other’s way.

But Will loved him. Once he got past the stage of wanting to touch Red Death all the time, the fish was actually pretty useful. He had to be fed two times a day and that was Will’s chore. He learned to count out five little pellets each time and gently drop them in the tank. If it was quiet and you listened closely, you could actually hear Red Death eating.

On Monday I was walking past the bowl and noticed Red Death was motionless. That’s not all that uncommon since he’s always been kind of lazy. Or as lazy as a fish can get. I tapped on the bowl but he didn’t move. Then I poked him with my finger. Nothing. And immediately I began to dread what I would tell Will.

Unfortunately my son is no stranger to death. He was only 1 when my grandmother died, but he was 2.5 years old when my grandfather passed away. Old enough to warrant an explanation that didn’t go exactly as planned. But the bottom line is he understands the concept of death and knows that’s what happens when people get really old and/or very sick. MJ and I made a decision to be “appropriately honest” with him about these things. It’s tough but I truly believe it’s the right way for us to proceed.

So I went downstairs and asked him to come up with me. When we got to our bedroom we had the following conversation.

“Hey buddy, do you remember what happens when animals get really old and sick?”

“They die.”

“That’s right. And you remember that most animals don’t live as long as people do, right?”

“Yes dada.”

“Well bud, I have some bad news for you,”
I said as I picked him up and showed him the bowl.

I never told him Red Death had died. But he looked at the bowl, saw the fish floating there, looked at me and just knew. His eyes began to water and his face contorted with sadness. He looked at me with pleading eyes and wrapped his arms around my neck.

“Dada, I don’t want fishes to die. I want fishes to live,” he sobbed as my heart broke.

After he had calmed down and the hard tears subsided, I asked him if he had any questions. And, because he’s a 3.5-year-old, you know he did.

“Dada, why did Red Death die?”

“Well, he was old and he wasn’t feeling well.”

“Was he sad?”

“He was only sad because he had to leave you and he loved you so much. But no Will, he wasn’t sad. Wanna know why? Because you took care of him so well and loved him so much, so there was no way he could be sad.”

“I did love him so much Dada. But I don’t want him to leave. Can we keep him even though he’s dead?”

“I’m sorry buddy, we can’t. We can’t keep dead animals just hanging around.”

“What do we do with him?”

Crap. I actually hadn’t thought about that. But when I brought in MJ and asked her what she thought we should do, the confusion just grew. Do you know what my wife—a 33-year-old grown woman—wanted to do with our dead betta fish? She suggested we bury it. Out in the yard. And she wasn’t kidding either. She thinks all dead things should be buried in the ground. Even fish, which is enormously confusing since they live their lives underwater.

So it was left up to me to dispose of Red Death’s earthly remains. I’ve never owned a fish before, but in all the movies I’ve seen it’s always straight to the toilet. So that’s what I suggested to Will.

“But Dada, that’s where we poop and pee.”

“Well we’re not gonna poop and pee on Red Death buddy. We’ll put him in there when it’s clean and we’ll flush him. Because all that water eventually goes to the ocean and that way Red Death will be home.”

Hey, I didn’t say I never lied to Will. But then he caught me off guard.

“OK. That’s a good idea Dada. And then Red Death will get eaten by a shark,”  he said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Why do you think Red Death is gonna get eaten by a shark?”

“Because sharks eat smaller fish and Red Death is smaller than a shark so it’s OK.”

Holy crap. There it is. I guess all the nature shows we watch have rubbed off on him, and he now has a fundamental grasp on how the food chain works. Circle of life and all that jazz. Whatever you wanna call it, Will gets it. And armed with that knowledge, Will made his peace with Red Death’s demise.

We brought the bowl into the bathroom and Will told Red Death he loved him and gave the side of the bowl a kiss. And in that instant I saw he was sad, but it was also clear he possessed a grim and reluctant understanding. And suddenly I was a little sad. Not because our fish died, but because my little boy seemed suddenly so grown up. And as he grows up, I become more and more cognizant of the fact that I can’t protect him from sadness, hardships and death. It’s a tough pill for a protective parent to swallow.

I didn’t just flush a dead betta fish down the drain tonight. I watched a little piece of my son’s childhood innocence disappear. Sure it’s necessary and probably a positive in the long run. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

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3 thoughts on “Explaining Death to Your Kids

  1. Will really gets it, good job on explaining it! My Grandma died last week and Aubrey still can’t grasp it. Her almost 4 year old mind keeps asking where Grandma is and I answer her over and over. She tells all the kids at preschool that “Grandma is in a box.” 😐

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