How to Say Good Bye to a Goldfish

By Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

No one wants to be the messenger of bad news, especially parents who want to create happy childhoods for innocent young children. However, childhood is more than a magical place for rainbows and moonbeams. Childhood is also the place where children learn about life. Young children want to know that they are safe and protected from things they do not understand – the unknown, unfamiliar, and unexpected.

Ready or not, preschool age children ask questions about death. Not unlike those unnerving questions of where babies come from, your head is spinning trying to guess where this conversation came from and where it is going.

Four and five year olds are not really morbid creatures. They are instead a little perfect storm of cognition and emotion – that is, they acquired notions about time (growing and aging) simultaneously with the emotional backlash of their new independence (remember the bad luck of Hansel and Gretel venturing too far from home). Then according to childhood logic, your child starts asking questions about death and dying.

Consider yourself lucky if your child leads you down this dark and rocky road. Your child is able to articulate perfectly normal developmental questions. I hope you have a goldfish. These discussions are much easier for children and parents if they are rooted in everyday, ordinary experiences – like goldfish and butterflies.

Prepare yourself early to use the words like death, dead, and dying. Children are not afraid of those words but grown-ups might be. Be fearless or at least be honest about your discomfort. It’s easier for children to understand that a grown-up is sad than it is to guess why a subject is taboo. Not talking about something can easily lead a child to think there’s something wrong in him for asking.

Condense explanations to two or three simple, easily repeatable messages. Your explanation must be short enough for your child to repeat to himself anytime his questions resurface. Childhood questions are not answered once and put aside. The answers must be looked at again and again until they become part of your child’s thinking. You might say, “When something dies, you don’t see it anymore. ” Or, from the book Lifetimes, “There are lots of living things in our world. Each one has its own special lifetime.”

Don’t say anything you’ll have to unteach later. Talking about these difficult subjects is a time of building trust, not time for a quick fix that will fall apart in a few years. Also, remember children are easily confused by euphemisms. For example, do not say the dead goldfish is sleeping. Children can see the difference. And you don’t want your child to become fearful of sleep.

Give children equal time to talk and ask questions.  Don’t feel like you have to rush in with all the right answers. Let the conversation flow in whatever direction your child wants. It’s always okay to ask your child what she thinks in answer to her own questions. Sometimes humor, imagination, and even silliness have a place in “serious” discussions with children.

Take full advantage of rituals that give children concrete ways of saying good bye. Sometimes when a pet dies, the parent thinks the child is too young to notice or care. The child, in fact, does notice but does not verbalize his observations for weeks or months. And then, the natural time for a farewell ceremony has passed and the parent is back-peddling to fill the emotional gap. Families standing around the toilet for a goldfish funeral are not just great moments in The Cosby Show. Saying goodbye is essential whether it’s a backyard burial, planting flowers, drawing pictures of the goldfish, or releasing a balloon to the sky.

Reassure your children that they will always be loved and cared for. Finally with all the goodbyes, some children start to feel emotionally vulnerable. A developmental fear of abandonment appears. If that happens, reassure your child that he is not alone and will never be abandoned. In the words of Billy Joel, you can “promise you’ll never leave�lullabies go on and on�.They never die. That’s how you and I will be.”

Recommended Children’s Books

  • Always and Forever, by Alan Durant
  • Goodnight My Angel, by Billy Joel
  • Lifetimes, by Bryon Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
  • Saying Goodbye to Lulu, by Corinne Demas & Ard Hoyt
  • Who is Ben?, By Charlotte Zolotow

Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, writing and lecturing on parenting and early childhood topics since 1984. Karen is also the Mommy & Me director at The Ruth and Edward Taubman Early Childhood Center at B�nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. 

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