Zac died today. If you don’t know who Zac is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know who he was either until I bought him from the pet store the day before Ellia’s 7th birthday. The truth is, we’re not very responsible pet owners so I’m surprised Zac the blue birthday beta made it as long as he did.
When Ellia named her fish, she was insistent that we spell his name without a “k” or “h” at the end. And anytime we would count how many girls live in our house, the girls would always be outnumbered because Ellia and Olive would adamantly include Moby the boy dog and Zac the boy fish.
To be honest, I’ve been worried about this day since I paid $5 for Zac and a bag full of turquoise aquarium rocks. This morning after Ellia went to school, Brett noticed he hadn’t moved. And then we noticed that he wasn’t giving the stereotypical float-at-the-top sign because he was under his cave-house Ellia insisted be included in his overcrowded studio apartment fish tank. It was all disturbing.
We broke the news to her at dinner. She ran into the couch room (named because it is filled with a large, sectional couch that covers the entire surface of the floor) and subsequently hid in her normal spot under a blanket. She’s not an affectionate, snuggly kid, but tonight she laid her head on my lap and cried uncontrollably. I cried with her.
“I’ve been dreading this day,” she said, and out came a stream of grief declarations.
“I wish I’d never met Zac. Then it wouldn’t hurt like this.”
“I never want another pet again! Then this day will never come.”
“Please tell me dogs live longer than fish.”
And between her words, she would alternately punch the couch and bury her head and cry. And I cried watching her cry.
Olive, Owen and Brett came into the couch room. Owen stared curiously at his sister, quiet for the first time all day. Olive asked if Ellia wanted a new fish, much to Ellia’s chagrin. When Ellia exploded in response, Olive tried to comfort her by saying, “No fish lives very long.” She’s working on her 5-year-old counseling skills.
We all had our own response to Ellia’s pain—Brett and I try to quell our “rescue-and-fix” instinct and instead, we attempted to express solidarity and sorrow alongside Ellia. Olive wanted to cheer Ellia up with the distraction of a new fish and the logic of a fish’s expected lifespan. Owen observed and eventually offered to be the entertainment for the evening.
But Ellia just wanted to mourn.
“Nothing will make this better,” she said.
And she’s wise to say that.
In her mind, the only thing that could make it better is the impossible—undo having a pet. Undo emotionally connecting with Zac. Never love so you never have to lose. This was avoidable, she said. Ellia’s coping mechanism finds its form in regret.
I asked her if she wanted to say goodbye or if she wanted us to remove him from her room without her knowing.
“Both are painful. I don’t want to say goodbye because it hurts, but it also hurts never seeing him again. I can’t win.”
Tonight was the first time in my 18 years of ministry that I have been asked about Fish Heaven. We didn’t talk about Fish Heaven in seminary, I informed her, but I’m fairly certain “new creation” as talked about in 2 Corinthians 5 is not limited to humanity, but includes the world. And betas are a part of the world.
Then, Brett explained “closure,” and Ellia decided she wanted to have a funeral, a small family gathering (out-of-town family are excused from attending) at a nearby pond. And here, Zac’s body will float- so that she can visit when she wants.
No one better tell her that a) this it is likely illegal to dump a dead fish or b) that Zac will be eaten 4 seconds after he hits the pond’s surface.
Because grief is sacred. And we shouldn’t touch sacred things. We should let them be. We can observe those grieving as they express anger, frustration, regret and pain. But we shouldn’t disturb grief. We shouldn’t reach for it in our own feelings of discomfort and shake it like a snow globe to hurry up the process.
Emotions toward someone else’s grief are sacred as well. Don’t criticize your emotions or those of others—let them be.
This is a part of the holy practice of being human—grief and holding space for those who grieve. And in grief we see an alternate angle of God and humanity, of loss and resurrection, of pain and hope, death and new creation.
Children learn how to deal with life’s difficulty through everyday challenges. And we can listen and offer insight, but we should never try to control their grief. It is the same for those who live outside of our couch room.
Offer a blanket to hide under. Offer a place to cry.
Sit with those in pain. Listen. Observe.
And always say yes when you’re asked to officiate a funeral for a fish.