Death of a pet comes with happy ending

By  Lisa Petsche
  • March 28, 2008

{mosimage}When a pet dies, it’s often a child’s first experience with death. This was the case with my son and his  Betta fish, Noel, a Christmas gift several years ago.

Noel lasted barely six months. Sean’s eulogy was short and sweet: “Noel was a good fish.” He immediately asked if he could get another one.

At the aquarium store, Sean selected the fastest-swimming Betta and named it Speedy. He bought a castle for a housewarming gift.

Speedy moved into the fish bowl in Sean’s room. It’s on a shelf surrounded by marine-themed items, including postcards, toys and a starfish and sea sponge from Florida.

Sean began attributing human qualities to Speedy and could often be overheard talking to him. Perhaps because he’d chosen this pet himself, he became quite attached to it.

Almost three years elapsed uneventfully in Speedy’s life — a long one for a Betta. Then one day last month, we noticed Speedy behaving strangely. He didn’t eat his dinner, either.

“Maybe he has the fish flu,” Sean speculated.

After Sean fell asleep, I tiptoed into his room with a flashlight. Speedy was swimming around, but slower than usual. In the morning he appeared to be sleeping at the bottom of the bowl, in his favourite spot.

Sean went off to school and I went off to work. My husband periodically looked in on Speedy. Only once was he moving around.

By evening, both my husband and I suspected he was dead.

It was time to tell Sean that Speedy was most likely gone. He immediately burst into tears, which quickly turned to heartwrenching sobs. They continued for some time.

Sean expressed remorse: “If I wasn’t at school today, I would have been with Speedy when he took his last breaths.”

Suddenly I had an inspiration. I work in palliative care, and I shared with Sean that often people take a while to die. In their final hours they may appear to be in a deep sleep, but they can still hear loved ones.

Maybe it was the same with fish, I suggested. Even though Speedy wasn’t moving, he might still be alive, and probably was. After all, he wasn’t floating, as lifeless Noel had been.

“I think you have a bit more time to be with Speedy and to say goodbye,” I concluded, correcting my earlier pronouncement.

Immediately Sean stopped crying and sat up on his bed. “OK,” he said, wiped his tears and pulled out a book so he could read to Speedy, a bedtime custom. I left them alone, closing the door as requested.

In the morning, Sean steered clear of the fish bowl. Speedy was lying on his side. If Sean noticed, he didn’t let on.

While he was at school, I checked on Speedy several times. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of life.

When Sean came home, I followed him to his room and gently broke the news. “I know,” he said matter-of-factly. We both chose to believe Speedy died overnight, with Sean, his good buddy, close by.

“I’ll have to wait about 70 years to see him again, in heaven,” Sean calculated mournfully. “That’s a really long time.”

Sean selected a small red gift box, embossed with hearts, for the casket. He requested one final look at the body, but got too close. “No offence, Speedy, but you stink,” he said.

I sealed the box and put it into cold storage. When the ground thaws, we’ll bury Speedy in the backyard, next to Noel.

Having accepted Speedy’s death, Sean soon became quite cheerful. He explained that he felt closer than ever to his pet, because Speedy was now free.

“He can follow me around and see the world. He’s not stuck in a bowl any more.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before Sean was ready for another fish. Speedy had reportedly given him the OK.

At the store, Sean chose a female Betta that “kept staring at me.” He spontaneously named her Delilah.

She is settling in quite nicely. She especially likes the castle. Apparently Speedy watches over her when Sean is at school (school being too boring, of course, for Speedy to stick around).

This child of mine has it all figured out.

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