How To Celebrate A Pet’s Life with Sensitive Children

“The pet fish isn’t looking very good.”

I handed the dinner plate to my husband in bed. He had hurt his back two weeks ago and only now was he beginning to get around again. He had always taken care of Mia, the fish. Since the injury, I had been feeding the fish and I seem to kill most flora and fauna that comes into my care. Not that she had ever really thrived in our small aquarium, but now she looked beyond rescue. June was quite fond of the orange-red Beta and it was her first pet.

We considered swapping in an identical fish, but the timing was off because Mia died in the evening on a weekend when everything was closed. Also, though it takes courage on our part as parents, we thought that this painful life experience of childhood is not entirely negative in terms of overall emotional growth. Still, there is an ordinariness to a dead fish, the little lifeless body gravitating toward the air pump, that somehow insults one’s attachment to it so I was glad that we had time to scoop Mia up and freeze her in a plastic container before June got up in the morning.

Facing Grief Courageously

My five year old wasn’t completely unprepared for the concept of death. On the last day we started talking about how Mia looked very sick and would probably die. When we got the fish, and many times after, we pointed out that all living things die and fish, in particular, have short lives.

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I have quality children’s programming  to thank for our preparedness. The best resource that I know of for helping children understand death is Episode 6, Season 1 Harold and the Purple Crayon – I Remember Goldie. You can stream it on WatchCartoons.com or buy the complete series on Amazon.com. We practically memorized it a long time ago, thanks to Netflix.

When we told June that Mia was dead there was much crying and June insisted on seeing Mia to say goodbye.

There are milestones of emotional growth that every kid eventually has to face and the death of a pet is one of them. As parents we put it off and prepare as best we can, but ultimately bad things happen and it’s a blessing if they experience the death of a pet before the death of a loved one. Grieving well takes practice. When kids are really little sometimes we can hide reality, distract them from it, or brush it away with those miraculous Mommy-hugs. Sometimes we can’t.

The shock of all these new and complicated feelings seems so difficult for kids to process. As a first time Mom it’s jarring for me, too. How can I make her understand that she won’t be sad forever? How can I explain, without being insensitive, that she can’t hold Mia and keep her? These feelings heal in a short time, but as a mother I can’t fix it, and that’s hard to accept.

Planning Ahead for Closure

We already made plans for this eventuality and decided to freeze Mia. We’re going to take her to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house on our summer vacation to bury her in their garden, a place that June loves.

It’s my understanding that Catholics don’t believe that animals go to heaven, so what are some ways that we can console our daughter?

We told her that we would go and buy a new fish and that, though it wouldn’t be Mia, the new fish would also make her happy. We said that enjoying the new fish would help her remember all the nice things about Mia, too. Talking about how nice the garden is at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house helped. June is very happy there, so burying Mia there is one last thing that we can do to show Mia that we cared about her. A nice plant could be placed on the grave. Perhaps something meaningful like marigolds for an orange fish.

What Mia meant to us and the joy that she brought glorifies God. God created Mia and gave her to us. So, Mia was important even though now she is gone. Animals belong to God and they make Him happy. Our love for Mia was a blessing to us and makes God happy, too. Here is a simple prayer that sums it up:

Dear God,

Everything in the world shows us Your Glory.
Thank You for Your Love and Mercy,
And all the Blessings which You have given our family, especially for Mia our pet fish.
We offer our sadness to You for the forgiveness of sins, and we pray for Your Healing Peace.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord.

Amen.

What I Learned from Mia

  • Help your child develop realistic expectations for the life expectancy of your fish.
  • Let your child know when the fish is probably dying so that it isn’t a surprise.
  • Use books and videos to help your child understand that all things die and what happens when something dies.
  • Snuggle and be comforting when the fish dies. It’s probably not the time for an educational experience.
  • Help your child recall and be thankful for their happy memories of their pet.
  • Do something special to say goodbye to your pet.
  • Help your child understand that they shouldn’t feel guilty about loving a new pet.
  • Talk about how God cares for animals, and how the friendship between your child and their pet pleased God.

Have you lost a pet? How did you help your kids get through it? Let me know in the comments.

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