Last week, we attended an open house at The Dormouse's preschool to celebrate... ummm... well... the difference between going to school three days a week in August and going to school three days a week in September, I guess. It was something I probably would have forgotten, but we happened to be driving back from some place else and passed the school, which jogged my memory. So we decided to stop in and see what they were doing.

It was a luau theme and for 45 of the 60 minutes we were there, we were the only ones there. So we got pretty much all the attention of all the teachers for a good deal of the time. We were bestowed with flower leis, given snow cones, and treated to games of giant inflatable basketball, soccer and hockey courtesy of Target's year end summer clearance. The other surprise for the kids (and the parents!) was that the school had purchased, for each and every child to take home: a live goldfish.

The teacher who handed it to us was almost embarrassed at the school's assumption and as she handed it over to my child, whispered to me "I'm sorry... I know we probably shouldn't have done this without checking with the parents first, but look at it this way... it'll probably die in about four days anyway." Greeeeaaat. We are pet lovers and ultimately didn't have a problem with this, but I know families who don't typically have pets and can only imagine what some of them thought or how they dealt with THAT.

We have a fish tank at home, but it's salt water and therefore, inhospitable for "Fishy" as he came to be known. Just days before, we had cleaned out the attic and I had handed all of our small freshwater fish tank paraphernalia over to an upcoming garage sale, so I found an empty flower vase and dubbed it Fishy's new home, intending to retrieve one of the small empty tanks from the garage sale later. We dutifully fed Fishy, planned on changing his water once a week and settled into our routine with him. The Dormouse loved him and actually did a pretty good job of remembering to feed him (although we stepped in on the days when she managed to get into bed without remembering).

Well, the teacher was only off by three days. This past Sunday, Uncle Matty came by for a visit and as we were arguing the value and relative benefits of the movie Fantasia (I, of course, for it, while the men, of course... not... and feeling that it could only be enjoyed along with mass quantities of alcohol), I happened to look up and notice that Fishy was now floating, belly up.

My first inclination was to make up an excuse to get her out of the room and hide my elimination of the dead carcass. Then somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain a memory was conjured up: a parade of approximately fifteen identical green parakeets named "Timmy", each one replacing a previous one who had died, flapping over the course of my childhood. I think the first one or two might have gotten past me, but eventually my brother and I both came to know that this new bird was not the same "Timmy" and no one was fooling us - we just never said anything in case our parents didn't realize the truth. I looked down at my child, who was not buying my "hey, why don't you go into the kitchen" suggestion and attempt to shield her from the sight with my body, and realized that I wasn't going to get out of this one that easily. So, I drew a great breath and announced, "Oh, Honey, I think maybe Fishy has died."

We have talked with her openly about her older sister who died before she was born. She comes with us when we visit the grave site and we include her sister (as well as her step brother) when we talk about the members of our family. I've always wanted that to be an open subject and not to have her figure it out and be blindsided by the information somewhere down the line. But that all happened before she came to us, so it's a pretty abstract idea in and of itself. When she was much younger she described in startling detail how we "took my sister to the hospital, but she was very sick and she died. Now she lives with Heavenly Father." Odd because we don't typically talk about the hospital experience in that way. I've never been able to convince myself one way or another whether this was just something she picked up from us or some sentient memory leftover from the preexistence. The realist in me thinks one thing, the romantic wants to believe another.

We lost a beloved cat when she was two years old. She surprised us by understanding the concept a lot better than we had expected, but we also knew that she was too young to be fully dealing with any real or lasting emotion surrounding the issue. Personally, I was way more affected by the experience than she - and not just because he'd accidentally scratched the crap out of my leg a couple of days before he died and I still have the scars.

But now, with a couple of years' maturity on her, she is dealing with emotions on a whole new level. Sure, I've seen this child cry before when she was hurt or upset, but this is an emotion she'd never fully experienced. And so, when I announced the loss of Fishy to her I saw, for the first time, what Real Grief looks like on my child's face. Remember those Rankin/Bass puppets from the Christmas specials back when you were a kid? Remember how their mouths screwed up into a bow in scenes when they were supposed to show fear and sadness? That's exactly it:

And it completely broke my heart.

I hugged her, stifled a giggle while looking over her shoulder at the menfolk, and prepared to have a three-year-old discussion about death.

The KingofHearts, desperate to end her suffering, offered the following rapid fire, schizophrenic attempts at getting her to stop crying... all in the space of less than five minutes.

  • We could have a funeral for Fishy
  • Hey, let's watch that Mickey Mouse movie we were talking about *turns on TV and starts movie*
  • Well, Fishy's living in Heaven with Cat right now and that'll be nice for him because he'll have some company
  • When fish die, they go back to the sea, wanna watch him go back to the sea? *heads toward bathroom*
  • We could get some new pets to replace Fishy, how about some crabs?
  • *Last ditch effort* Want some ice cream? *dishes her out a bowlful and hands it to her*

So now my daughter is thinking that Heaven is some place in the ocean where fishes come back to life, asking me how the cat will fare under water if he's with the fish, expressing guilt that Fishy died because she didn't feed it every day (I promised her that was not the case), and learning that when you lose a pet, you get movies, ice cream, and more pets. I suggested we focus on one thing at a time, which pissed off the KoH, so he left the room. Which, I think, helped.

Explaining death to a child is no easy task. My daughter is still working on the abstract concept of "tomorrow", which is something that's a hell of a lot more commonly dealt with in our everyday experience. Death is something that touches most of us less often so our familiarity with it - even as adults - is a lot more tenuous. We don't know what we think about death because we spend all of our time trying to avoid it.

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was a funeral director, so I developed an understanding of death and it's everyday-ness that most people lacked. When we'd visit, we'd help out at the mortuary and have conversations about the business that made it clear (to me anyway - I'm not sure that my cousins were as comfortable with the subject) that there was little to fear about it. My faith teaches me this life is not the end of our progression and we'll see loved ones again. Therefore, death is just a part of every one's life - the natural order of things. But communicating that to a child? Something else entirely.

Though this incident passed quickly enough, I know that eventually, Real Grief will touch her in one way or another. If nothing else, our remaining cat is no spring chicken, so I'm going to have to get better at this and soon. I wish I could spare her from every bad feeling that she'll ever have in her life: make it possible that she'll never be teased in school, never do poorly on a test, never be left out of someone's party, never lose someone she loves... and at the very same time, I know that's ridiculous and ill-advised. She needs to learn about these things so she can deal with them. I want her to experience those things. I want her to learn to love life... and those things? They are a part of life.

These are things I didn't realize I was signing up for when I became a parent.

That's actually me there with the bunnies.