Monday, January 29, 2007

Rest in peace, Dorothy

Bud's pet goldfish, Dorothy, died this weekend. She has been unwell for a long time. She had a close call last March and she pulled through, though she's never really been the same since.

I've been thinking about Dorothy's eventual death since she took ill last year, so I've had plenty of time to plan - though I've had no real sense of how Bud would react. He loves his fish, and he talks about them like they're family members. He offers frequent, unprompted declarations of his affection for them: "I love my pets Dorothy and Stevie!" But I didn't want to project onto him what he should feel or inspire uncertainty where none existed, so I decided I'd just react as events unfolded.

For the past couple of weeks we've been watching Dorothy struggle to stay upright as her gills and tail began turning black. I've been planting small seeds with Bud: Dorothy is very sick. Not the regular kind of sick - a different kind of sick.

Yesterday afternoon Bud was playing on the computer and Nana came upstairs to let me know that the end was near. I broke the news to Bud.

"Remember when we talked about Dorothy being very sick? Not regular sick?"


"Well, honey, now she is dying. That means it's time for her to leave us and go to heaven."

"And she will be back soon?"

"No, sweetie. She doesn't get to come back from heaven. She has to stay in heaven, where she will be very happy and she won't be sick anymore. Do you want to go downstairs and say goodbye to her?"

"Goodbye to Dorothy?"


"Stevie's friend?"

"Yes. And we can tell Stevie that it will be okay and that we'll take care of him."

So down the stairs we went. Dorothy was lying on her side near the bottom of the bowl, barely breathing.

Bud peered in and put his nose against the side of the bowl. "She's sleeping?"

"No, honey. She's not sleeping. She's dying. It's almost time for her to go to heaven."

"Goodbye, Dorothy," he said. "We'll miss you."

"We love you, Dorothy," I added.

Bud turned to me. "I can go back to computer now?"

"Sure, honey."

Dorothy died about 30 minutes later, and Nana removed her from the bowl. I told Bud that Dorothy was gone, and asked him if he wanted to go talk to Stevie. He said no.

Poor Stevie is a wreck. He's spent most of his life being bossed around the bowl by the bigger, more dominant Dorothy. It was startling to watch as, over the past few weeks, Dorothy started shrinking and Stevie became the fish in the power position. But he continued to defer to Dorothy, trying to nudge her to the surface when it was time to eat, falling still as she lay struggling for breath. Now, without her, he's darting crazily around the bowl, all bulging eyes and twitching tail.

Bud, in contrast, is serene. He hasn't asked about Dorothy, and he's given Stevie only a fleeting glance. We told him that Dorothy is in a happy place, and it seems he has taken us at our word.

We had planned to buy another goldfish to try to ease the loss for Bud, but as it turns out Bud is just fine. I guess we have to turn our attention instead to the family member who needs it most.

The question is: how do we figure out how to ease the loss for Stevie?

Dorothy and Stevie in happier times
Photo by Bud


mjsuperfan said...

Wow, that's a tough one. I'm sorry to hear that Stevie's so distraught, but I'm glad to hear that Bud is doing so well.

It's hard to know: would Stevie like a time to grieve, or should you pop a new fish in, and hope that this distracts him? I think I'd vote for the distraction approach, but I know so little about fish!
Good luck,
(formerly momontheverge)

MOM-NOS said...

Alice, we're fish novices around here as well - Dorothy and Stevie were our first. I had underestimated them, though. I guess I had assumed that fish were just sort of ornamental and you couldn't really bond with them. But, I'll tell you, the first time I walked toward the bowl with the fish food canister in hand and they swam toward me and started wagging their tails, I really had to reconsider.

I'm sort of thinking that Stevie will need another companion soon. He's always seemed a little nervous and twitchy, and I think he'll be floundering (pun intended) without Dorothy around to keep him centered.

I was also just rereading an earlier post from around the time of Dorothy's close call, and I found wise advice I'd gotten from Bud's Kindergarten teacher. She said that sometimes kids will have a "no big deal" reaction, then experience sadness or nightmares weeks later. I'll definitely keep an eye out for that!

Anonymous said...

Granted, a fish is not a dog, but my kids' experience with losing a pet was when our dog died. One daughter, at five, was sad for about two minutes, then said, "Can we go get a new puppy today?" It never did come back to haunt her. The other daughter, then eight, was so distraught that literally, she ended up in therapy. The loss of the dog was apparently an opportunity to explore (then wallow in) the feelings of grief, sadless, loss, etc. You never know with kids, but I agree that getting a new fish (and changing out the water at least 50%) couldn't hurt. Stevie might like it a lot.

joker the lurcher said...

i had mice when i was a kid. one died (drowned in the loo!) and the other one started to eat herself out of grief. so we got another one but the dynamic was never right. its must be even tougher working out what to do with fish. but at least bud is ok....

Maddy said...

A peaceful death can be a hard thing to explain to a child, small or otherwise. It is more difficult to explain a random wanton act of suicide to a small child - moral - do not leave the fish bowl close to the sink and the garbage disposal unit during clean up time.

MOM-NOS said...

mcewen, it sounds as if you speak from experience...

Club 166 said...

[quote]One daughter, at five, was sad for about two minutes, then said, "Can we go get a new puppy today?" It never did come back to haunt her. The other daughter, then eight, was so distraught that literally, she ended up in therapy. [/quote]

Kids at the age of five typically don't have the same view of death as they will later. It's not viewed as a permanent state, and they don't usually have the intense feelings they will have later.

By the time of being about 8, though, when kids experience such a loss they have a much more intense reaction, as they actually have some concept of the permanence of it all.

Bud may or may not be old enough to react in a severe way. I suspect if my first grader (PDD-NOS) were to have the same loss, he would react intensely for a day or so (just as he reacts to the loss of anything in his environment). Then he would likely just move on. But I'm not sure about that.

kristina said...

I'm seconding club 166----Charlie feels, and articulates (in his way) how he feels about a loss for a day or 2, then seems to get himself to get on to something else (well, just in the past few years that is).

Steve has Bud, yes?

I was sad just to see this post's title.

KAL said...

Oh, poor Stevie... I say get him a new companion after a suitable time of mourning. I know nothing about fish, only cats, but know that companionship extends their lives, so why not for our finned friends too? On the other hand, I'm glad that Bud seems to be handling Dorothy's demise okay. When I was 8 my pet hamster "ran away" (i.e., was eaten by our cat) and I remember grieving the little rodent for some time. You never know...

Anonymous said...

Not to detract from the sadness of your (and Bud's) loss, but if you want to keep goldfish alive, putting them in a tank with a filter is a much better way to do it than putting them in a bowl.

Goldfish are very active and very "messy" fish -- they need lots of room (professionals recommend 10 gallons per goldfish), sufficient surface area at the top of their container in order to assure proper oxygenation of the water, and if possible, a biological filtration system that allows for the proliferation of friendly bacteria.

There are tanks you can get that come with an accessory called a "bio-wheel" that spins like a water wheel in the filter section, and over time this wheel builds up a colony of beneficial bacteria that help to maintain the tank's ecosystem and help keep ammonia levels in check.

There are small and very inexpensive ammonia indicators you can get for your tank; they stick onto the inside via a suction cup and change color according to the ammonia level in the water. Excess ammonia can build up very quickly in a non-filtered/small container such as a bowl, and this unfortunately sounds like what could have happened with Dorothy, since you describe blackening of the fins.

Some people can successfully keep goldfish in bowls if they employ daily water changes, but most people would find this to be too high-maintenance. If you want to keep goldfish over the long term, you probably want to invest in a tank with a filter.

Goldfish can actually live 20 - 40 years in a proper environment; many people have the impression that they are short-lived fish, when in fact, the leading cause of goldfish death is the fact that most pet stores do not inform consumers about fish health, and sell hardware that is inappropriate for goldfish.

Mom without a manual said...

Was she named Dorothy in honor of Elmo's fish? We liked Elmo and Dorothy as well.

We also recently dealt with the loss of our cat. He actually died in September but JP never seemed to notice. (They weren't that close.) I was a coward and took the easy way out. I decided that if JP noticed we would talk about it. If not, I'd escape the talk--for now.

Well, it was January before he asked where Devlin (the cat) was. It was crazy! It was totally out of the blue. I feel bad now because he probably noticed and was confused but was never able to articulate it.

But we had the talk. When we talked about heaven I tried to give him the visual of the blue sky above the clouds. He just said okay and then asked if when Devlin fell out of the sky he would come back to the basement (where he usually hung out).

I don't think we are ready to understand the concepts....

MOM-NOS said...

Thanks for the info, Zilari! Very good to know.

Mom Without A Manual, Dorothy was named in honor of Elmo's pet. Bud and Nana bought them and Bud named Dorothy right away. Nana looked at the other fish, who was frenetically darting around the bowl (as I said, he's always been a bit nervous and twitchy) and suggested naming him "Speedy." Bud replied "Yeah! Stevie!", and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the reaction my son (4 yr. old NT) had to our fish dying! I thought he would be upset, but he was completely unfazed. In fact, he took a little TOO much interest in flushing them down the toilet. Hmmm...maybe it's a boy thing ;)

Daisy said...

I'm a fishie novice, but we had the same problem when Beast, our Big bunny, died last summer. The bunny left behind eventually learned to be an Only Bunny. We tried buying him a friend, but that's a long story and a post (or three) of my own.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for some time now, and will stop lurking now!

I'm sorry to hear about Dorothy. Just this past Sunday we lost one of our goldfish, Cassie. We'd had her and Nemo for a year. After a day of him swimming madly around looking for his tank mate, we decided to get another friend (OK, two) for him. Nemo, Midnight and Spot all seem to be getting along well.

I explained to my son (just turned 6, PDD) that she had died and gone on to fish heaven. "She'll be back", he said. "She's coming back". We talked about it a little more, then talked about Nemo and how lonely he seemed to be. When I asked my son if he wanted to get another fish to keep Nemo company, he was thrilled. So, I guess the distraction approach has worked well for us in a couple of ways!

Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us out here in cyberspace. I very much enjoy reading your posts. People like you make France a happier place. :)