The Life of Lightning: Talking to Kids about Grief and Loss
I received this note from Marissa a few days ago. Her pet fish, Lightning, had died.
We’ve had many pet fish over the years, but Lightning lived in a tank in Marissa’s room and she was responsible for feeding him every day. He lived a pretty long time — for a fish.
Growing up, I was terrified of death. I vividly remember crying to my mother on several occasions and telling her I didn’t want her to die. To this day, I can recall nightmares of family members dying and the panic I felt when I awoke.
Gavin, on the other hand, regards death as an integral part of life and doesn’t seem afraid of it. I’ve always envied and admired that about him, and knew that I wanted our children to share his outlook.
Marissa was first introduced to the concept of death when she was four years old. My grandmother (who lived to be 101) and Marissa enjoyed a special bond and spent a great deal of time together.
When Grandma Rashe died, I didn’t shield Marissa from it. She saw me cry and we talked about how much we would miss Grandma’s warm and caring nature. We reminisced and told stories about her.
When Marissa asked, “Where did Grandma Rashe go?” I told her that I didn’t know, but that many people believe she went to a place called Heaven to be with God. Marissa seemed comforted by that idea.
Over the years, Marissa has developed a greater awareness and understanding of death and has come to me in the middle of the night crying — just as I did with my mother — saying she’s afraid I’m going to die.
I tell her that I plan to be around for a very long time. Sometimes I don’t say anything and we just hug. Other times we talk about how grateful we are for each other.
In the past, when other fish of ours died, sometimes Marissa had major meltdowns and other times seemed completely unfazed. When Lightning died, she grieved alone in her room and then announced that she wanted to keep Lightning in a box.
After we calmly explained the very disgusting aspects of this plan, she agreed to a burial in our backyard.
She helped bury Lightning and we put a rock, some tiny flowers, and a coco plum to mark the site.
We asked Marissa what made Lightning a great fish and she said, “He kept me company, he was always very quiet, and he never complained when I forgot to feed him.”
It was a lovely ceremony that honored and celebrated life instead of focusing on death.
I know that the death of a pet fish doesn’t compare to the death of a dog, a cat, or a human being. But I think even these little experiences build on one another to help kids normalize and accept the realities of life.
Click here for a resource to download called, “Talking to Children about Death“ from the National Institutes of Health.
In the comments section, please let us know: What have your experiences been with talking to kids about death? What questions did they ask and how did you answer? Do you try to shield them from it or do you talk about it openly?
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