It’s interesting to see a 3 year old process the concept of death with a beta fish, called Birdie.
Tonight my granddaughter, Lily, who is three and lives with me with her mom, experienced the death of her fish, Birdie.
This is not her first encounter to death and dying. She has been brought up learning about Grandpa Gene, her maternal grandfather who passed away when her mom was only seven. She was two and a half years old when her Great Great Granddaddy died at the age of 92. At his funeral when all was quiet she spoke softly and profoundly stating ‘Jesus is naked’ after seeing the crucifix in the church. What a priceless gift and memory. She was almost three when our family cat, Geno, had to go to heaven at the age of 15.
However, Birdie was a fish she picked out at the store and brought home and named. And she was older so it’s a bit different I would say.
We had Birdie for almost two years. After Lily went to bed this evening, Lily’s mom discovered Birdie had died in the fish bowl. Together we consulted not only on what to do with Birdie but how to let Lily know that her fish had died.
Me, realizing the importance of saying goodbye and keeping it simple to a three year old, I scooped Birdie out of the bowl into a cup with a little bit of water. Her mom and I went into her bedroom, showed Birdie to her and told her he had died. He will now go to Fish Heaven. At first, Lily began to cry and almost immediately saying I want another Birdie. She then began looking at birdie in the cup. That was followed by some laughter and changing the subject. I knew this was a natural human response to trying to process ‘news’ that is not really understood and that makes one feel awkward and uncomfortable. She knew fish swam, and somehow her little self understood the concept of flushing Birdie down the toilet as she is the one who suggested it. So, all three of us went to the bathroom. Lily looked at Birdie in the cup, blew a kiss and dumped him in. Then Flushed Away he went. Simple as that.
A few minutes after climbing back into bed, Lily said she wanted to touch him. I said, you can’t now, he’s gone. She said okay and then proceeded to carry on about how little fish don’t bite but big ones can; and then started rambling on about everything and anything. I listened for several minutes.
She had the need to chat. I know it was her way of processing. Was it past her bedtime? Yes. Was she carrying on about gibberish? Yes. It’s so important to LISTEN. It was her way of processing. Will she have a need to process more tomorrow or even later tonight? Most likely. Will she sporadically talk about Birdie? Yes. Will she have a crying spell or two about missing Birdie in weeks or months to come? Yes.
It was great to see the wheels in motion and how she processed the information, the emotions, and the feelings; out of the mouths of babes. They see things at face value, unfiltered, innocent. When we ‘grow up’ many of us lose those qualities. It’s important to touch base with those qualities. Growing up doesn’t have to mean losing compassion, love, and the simplicity of talking about death and dying.