Friday, March 17, 2006

Life lessons

Bud's goldfish, Dorothy, is dying.

She has been unwell for a while - bulging in the wrong places, listing to the side - but last night she took a discernible turn for the worse, her eyes getting white, her gills struggling to open, her fins barely stirring. We moved her into a private bowl, away from her friend Stevie, and into the bowl that will act as her goldfish hospice. This morning she looked even worse and poor Stevie, alone in his bowl for the first time, seemed distraught.

So this morning I was presented with a dilemma. Bud had not noticed Dorothy's absence from the bowl. I could easily have asked Nana to slip out while he was at school and buy a replacement Dorothy, sparing Bud the tragedy of losing his beloved pet. And while I want to protect Bud, while I want to keep him free from unnecessary pain, I also want him to live fully -and loss is a part of life. Dorothy will not be the only loved one that Bud will lose in his life. And as difficult as her loss might be, it will not be the most difficult loss he will experience. It is time to help him start to develop the skills that will help him withstand the greater losses when they eventually come.

I didn't want to start the difficult conversation before I sent Bud off to school, so I just started laying the groundwork.

"Dorothy is very sick, Bud," I said.

"Oh no! My fish!" he yelled, running to the bowl, where Stevie swam in confused circles.

"She's over here in this bowl, honey," I said, holding it low so Bud could peer in to see the barely-moving goldfish. "She is sleeping here so Stevie doesn't get sick too."

Bud put his face close to Dorothy's water.

"That's okay, Dorothy," he said. "You feel better soon." Then he kissed the air above her bowl with a loud smack.

My throat tightened, but I reminded myself, now is not the right time. I put Dorothy's bowl back on the counter, where she was out of Bud's sight.

So very soon - tonight, or perhaps tomorrow - it will be time to introduce my son to one of the most difficult parts of life: the ending. I'm thinking about how to phrase it, about which words will bring comfort, and about what I can say that won't make him panic the next time that he, or someone else he cares about, gets sick.

I imagine that I will take my cues from him, and work hard not to plant emotions that are not there. I'll try not to talk too much. I'll try to listen to what he's not saying as much as to what he is. But, mostly, I will just be with him. Because, ultimately, when we're grieving and we're struggling to understand our own grief, it is the comforting presence of other people, the space and the permission to feel, and the knowledge that even in our darkest moments we are not alone, that we really need most.

Perhaps that lesson is the final gift that Bud will get from his very first pet.


Wendy said...

Wow...what a week you've had!

I'll hope for the best but should Dorothy meet her maker in Goldfish heaven, maybe you should have a funeral for her a la Ruby from The Cosby Show. Give Bud a little closure.

gretchen said...

MOM, you bring up some tough subjects. Jeez. Makes me feel a little silly about the post I want to write about being jealous that my husband and daughter got to go to the NCAA tournament...

I have absolutely NO advice to give on this subject. We have thankfully not experienced the death of a pet or any other being close to Henry. (And our pet turtles should outlive all of us, knock on wood.)

As usual, I will look forward to hearing what you and Bud come up with.

Peace Dorothy.

Emily Scott Banks said...

Hey, MOM, we went through a very similar situation several months back when Tucker's dwarf hamster, um, "played with", one of our cats, and now "Hamster-Hamster" is watching and loving Tucker from heaven (insert whatever your personal belief is here)and Tucker is cool knowing that - indeed was surprisingly intuitive about it. He didn't really want more info at the time, although in the months since then, he has occasionally commented and asked for elaboration/confirmation. Of course, he has linked some things together with the human connection since then, and is worried that having "bent skin", i.e. wrinkles, means that you are going to heaven soon. My mom jokes that we are all now signing up for face-lifts and Botox.

Basically, I just bet you're right on track with trusting your instincts.

Brett said...

This is a very hard time in any child's life, for death is hard to understand at a young age. We've had to have two dogs "put to sleep" over the years. For the first one, we explained to the boys that the dog was sick, that we needed to take him to the hospital, and that he would not be coming back. We gave them a chance to say good-bye.

My non-autistic son didn't like it, but he understood. (I've got to thank "The Lion King" here, for the whole Circle of Life thing.) I'm not sure my autistic son quite understood what was happening, but he did understand saying goodbye forever. He asked about the dog a couple of times ("He's not ever coming back?"), but never got overly sad.

The kicker was the next time we had to take a dog to the vet. "He's not coming back either?" So we had the chance to explain the difference between preventative visits and other visits. (It was really challenging a bit later when we did have to leave the dog overnight after getting "fixed" - a term I don't really understand since they are actually "breaking" him....)

Not sure what my point is, except to say I think you're on the right track. Death is a part of life, and we all have to experience it. It may be harder for some than others to deal with, but that doesn't change the fact that it must be faced. Like with so many things, our autistic children need to live and experience the world just like their "NT" peers.


Anonymous said...

Well MOM, you're more brave and ready to deal with the "D" word than I was with Aiden's first fish. I snuck out and replaced it. But, he's still too young to understand. I think you're on the right track. The bottom line is be honest with his questions and concerns.

Best of Luck!