“I honestly had no idea that flushing a dead fish would create so much drama,” wrote Julie Cole, mother of six and co-founder of Mabel’s Labels, on her Facebook page recently. “RIP Thomas the Blue Fish.” It was instantly apparent she’d struck a nerve: her loyal Facebook followers soon posted dozens of recollections of their own fish-flushing travails.
“Sniff. Sniff. Memories,” one woman posted. “Maddy insisted on a full-out funeral, including chairs, flowers and even neighbours. We were even asked to present a speech. I have to admit, I cried. Poor ‘Goldie.’ We buried him, and the next day dogs had dug him up. Never told Maddy. Sorry for your loss.”
Some posters suggested other ways to dispose of dead fish while preserving their kids’ innocence of death. One explained, “We had to take our fish down to Lake Ontario ‘to let it find its family before he died.’ Worked like a charm. No tears!”
Others chimed in with cautionary tales. “We once had to bury a fish,” wrote one follower. “Problem is, it died mid-winter and it was too cold to dig a hole. So we froze the fish in a baggie in the freezer. Problem is, I opened the freezer one day and it fell out and literally shattered. Fun and games! Thank God for the baggie.”
One grandmother relayed how she softened the blow with a romantic twist: “When my granddaughter’s male fish died and we had to flush him, I told her he was going to fish heaven, probably in Bermuda, and when he woke up there he’d be surrounded by gorgeous female fish all saying, ‘OMG, he’s so cute.’ That really made her smile.” I pulled something similar when my daughter’s fish Miss Rosie was flushed. “She’s going to see the mermaids in the ocean,” I lied, which seemed to appease her.
Interestingly, what parents did not confess to on Cole’s page was actually telling their children the simple truth: “The fish is dead. It’s going down the toilet because that’s where dead fish go.”
When I called Cole to discuss all this, she said, “I was so surprised by the response. My eight-year-old actually said, ‘Why couldn’t you have been like every other mother and just have gone and bought another fish and tricked us into thinking it was Thomas?’ She wanted me to lie to her!” says Cole, whose company sells personalized labels for kids’ belongings. Her five-year-old, on the other hand, barricaded himself in the washroom, a kind of human shield between the dead fish and the toilet—until Cole’s 11-year-old intervened and provided air cover so that Cole could flush the dearly departed while the five-year-old wailed.
Parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of Ain’t Misbehaving, says that if lying to your children about how or where the fish goes after it dies is your worst boo-boo, then it isn’t the biggest deal. However, she believes that the death of a fish can be a teachable moment, especially for the kids of helicopter parents. “Honestly, in the old days, children knew about death,” she says. “They used to go to slaughterhouses on field trips! But now modern parents want to protect their kids from everything.”
Letting children experience the emotions that follow a fish’s death is, Schafer says, “good preparation for more important and meaningful deaths in the family, like the dog that’s been with the family for 13 years, or a grandparent.” She suggests that when a goldfish dies, parents should ask children how they’d like to deal with it. Some might choose flushing, while others might prefer a ceremonial burial. “Maybe some would like to get a little cracker box and bury them in the grass and say a few words to Goldie.”
She doesn’t believe in sneaking out and buying a new fish and trying to trick kids into believing it’s the same one, because “what you’re really saying to your children is that you don’t trust them to handle emotional things. Having a goldfish die helps build emotional muscles.” Plus, Schafer says, you don’t want your kids to find out you’ve lied to them.
But, it seems, many parents have no inteniont of giving up their “Big Goldfish in the Sky” lies. After all, kids’ grief isn’t as easy to flush as dead goldfish are.