Recently, I wrote about the joy that our family pets add to our lives, how they teach my kids responsibility and love us all unconditionally. Today, I'm sad to report, we have experienced a first in our family: the death of one of our pets. Our favorite fish friend, Fabio, who we all loved as much as you can love a fish, passed away, from natural causes ... (?)
I know my original plan was to attempt a “body double,” slipping in a new fish who resembled Fabio, while my kids were at school, but Fabio had other plans. He flapped his fins for the last few times just at the exact moment that my little kids were returning from their weekly evening visit with their father. Not any other day of the week, not an hour sooner or during the night, mind you. He chose just then. The kids were filing in the door and began doing their standard pet greetings -- checking in with all of our pets -- when we all noticed that Fabio was acting strange. I instantly knew that something was very “fishy” about his behavior and that his demise was likely imminent, while the kids giggled at his “silly” side flips and other uncharacteristic (and, to me, alarming) behaviors.
Acting on my need to protect my kids and their young innocent hearts, I quickly shooed them upstairs for their showers while I wrestled with what to do and what to say to them once he expired. Do I allow them to be present for his final heartbreaking struggles or do I shield them from this harsh reality -- that death is an unavoidable and sad part of life? I really struggled with how to handle this!
As if he could sense my internal mommy struggles, Fabio made it easy on all of us, and took his last lap while the kids were getting their pajamas on, leaving me as the only witness. I was secretly glad I was present with him because I somehow felt better that he hadn't expired in the center of our table, in the middle of our kitchen, all alone. I gently wrapped a towel around his bowl and made the decision that, as with everything, honesty was going to be the best policy. So, when the kids returned and assembled around the table for their evening snack, I allowed them to make their own decision whether or not they wanted to see Fabio lying motionless on the bottom of his bowl. I explained that he had passed away while they were upstairs getting ready for bed. Some took a final peek and some didn't.
Regardless, they cried for Fabio. I cried for them. I realize that he's “just a fish,” but he was our first fish and a unique part of our close knit family. He was a sort of symbol of new beginnings; since he joined our family the very first Christmas that we celebrated as a family of only 9.
The kids cried their tears and then moved directly to the practical things: burial. Could we? I obliged, willingly. Due to a million reasons, many of which I've just explained, it just didn't feel right to do anything else BUT to give him a proper burial. So, as the kids munched on their snack, we planned the details of his “service.” Together we picked a location to bury him where Shoka would not be able to “resurrect” him (eh hem ... if you know what I mean) and how we would decorate his burial place in order to properly honor him.
The next day I stopped by a local craft store to find the items we had put on our list. I knew I needed a biodegradable box and some fish themed stickers to decorate the box. We agreed to spray paint a rock with Fabio's name on it, so I picked up blue spray paint in the same hue of blue as Fabio is (er, was). I also picked up some fish themed ribbon to tie around the box to add a perfect finishing touch (and just between us, I did this to further deter Shoka if he did indeed manage to dig him up!!). I also added some plastic floral decor to my shopping basket to decorate his grave site -- one in the shape of an “F” and another in the shape of a heart.
My final purchase was a pack of natural sea sponges to pad the box (after wetting them) before placing Fabio inside of it, in order to reassure Alexis that Fabio wouldn't “dry out,” as was her worry. I was hoping this extra measure would help comfort her and ease her mind.
We were all very sad but I was hoping that by honoring their wishes with a full “funeral” for Fabio, complete with “props,” and in showing them my support, it would help them grieve and eventually move on. And maybe, I reasoned, it would form a positive (as possible) baseline for how they handled death in the future?! I could only hope.
When the kids hopped into the BBB (Big Black Bus), I told them what I had purchased -- but was still wondering aloud where we could find a “grave stone.” I had been wracking my brain ALL DAY for ideas on where to locate something that could serve the purpose. Nothing. I kept coming up empty. I already knew that our land had very few appropriate sized stones on it, because we've looked for some in the past for different reasons.
So ... as I was driving home and chatting about the supplies I had found, and what I still needed, I realized, at that exact moment, we were passing a construction site that had an abundance of loose stones and rocks mixed into the large piles of freshly dug dirt near the road. So, I quickly pulled into the make shift parking lot alongside of the bulldozers and various construction trucks. We sat for a while and watched the men moving earth and doing what construction guys do (my boys were instantly enthralled!) while we tried to attract the attention of one of them so that we could “ask permission” to take a stone. The kids thought it was funny that I was so adamant about asking permission to take a rock, but I reminded them that it would be considered “stealing” if we didn't. Not our property. Not our rocks. I could see their wheels turning, and once they realized we'd be considered “thieves” (their word) if we didn't ask, they started pointing out the working men and urged me to flag them down to ask!
Finally, as the work day was ending, I was able to get the attention of a truck full of guys and hopped out and awkwardly asked permission to “take a rock for a headstone for the burial of our pet” (please note: I conveniently left out that the “pet” was a FISH for obvious reasons). You should have seen the looks I got for that request! Priceless! But, once their confusion subsided, they heartily offered a “help yourself!” and motioned toward the rocky dirt piles giving me permission to start my search. Despite my improper footwear (heels -- what else is there in life?), I quickly found a flat and perfect sized rock and hauled it (minus the few million ants who resided underneath it) to the back of my BBB.
The kids were quite amused by this pit stop, but considering they are quite accustomed to my extreme antics carried out in their honor, they just shrugged and rolled their eyes as I pulled out onto the road and headed home. Once dinner was served and cleaned up, we began to decorate for Fabio's ceremony. The little kids decorated his paper box. Mady offered to spray paint his grave stone. And Alexis helped to place the wet sponge, and Fabio, into his “casket.” And to finish the process, I tied the fish ribbon beautifully (and very secure) around it.
Finally we were ready to dig the grave and bury him. The kids all gathered around as I placed the box into the shallow hole I had dug, making sure to place it UNDERNEATH the layer of landscaping fabric in the garden (an unexpected yet welcomed additional deterrent for our dig happy dog!). Once we had replaced the soil, I placed the rock that said “Fabio” on top. The kids and I said our final goodbyes to our fishy friend, as we placed the plastic floral wreaths on his grave. Although possibly perceived as excessive, I used this opportunity to honor the life of our pet, but more importantly to help teach my kids the value of ALL life -- whether a pet or a person. Life is precious, unpredictable, and certainly never a guarantee for anyone -- or anything.
This experience helped me realize that one of the best ways to teach kids the value of life is by handling death with the utmost respect. Although we are still sad that our table is a little emptier, the kids seemed pleased and mostly comforted by the way his death was handled. They all agree that Fabio will NOT be replaced anytime soon. They have informed me that they will let me know when they are ready to welcome a new fish, with a different “F” name, into our family. Until then, the bowl and supplies have been shelved.
And to think at one time, not very long ago, I thought it would be as easy as slipping a new “Fabio” into his bowl without anyone noticing?! Chalk that up as a lesson learned for mom!
How have you handled the death of a family pet?
Image via Kate Gosselin