Grief and Goldfish
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Goldfish were my first pets, and they were a constant throughout my childhood. They lived in a tank set into floor-to-ceiling white laminate shelving in the basement where I played. There were usually two fish, one black and one orange. The orange named Annie, and the black named Pudd. I loved them. I loved when my father and I would clean out the tank and change their décor, particularly when I was allowed to include the fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark pink plants instead of the more naturally-toned green and brown fake plants. I would stare into the tank and wish that I could climb in and join them. As an only child, they were among my closest friends.
Inevitably, one of my fish died after bedtime one night when I was five or six years old. My parents quickly and quietly removed the body and disposed of it in whatever way they thought suitable. As it was a weekend, the next morning at the break of dawn I ran downstairs to greet the fish before putting on early morning cartoons.
I was inconsolable at what I saw. I have never held an excess of patience, particularly when I need answers, so I shrieked until my parents came downstairs, probably around 6:30 am. When they arrived, still in their pyjamas, they calmly explained that the other fish had died and they didn’t want me to see that, so they scooped her out and got rid of her.
“I should have seen her! I want to see her! That wasn’t fair!” I screamed.
“But Catherine, we didn’t think you’d want to see a dead fish. We want you to remember her as she was.” Now my mom was welling up, becoming visibly emotional as she often does when I show an overabundance of feelings.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
I can’t be sure if my young mind was trying to deny the death, to believe that somehow the loss could have been suspended if I could only see the tiny orange body, or if I instinctively knew that to see the body is an essential part of the grieving process.
Periodically, when explaining Dead Pet Girls to someone new, we hear a response along the lines of “right, that makes sense because parents give children pets as practice for the bigger loss of human death.”
If that is the case, then yes, this moment was practice for how death in my life has played out thus far. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an open casket funeral, or if I have I was very young and blocked it out. But most of the time, the death is deemed either too tragic, the person too old or too changed by sickness to be displayed once more. Instead, we mourn in the abstract. So, as far as I can recall, I’ve never seen a dead person, except for the wax-coated bones of Jeremy Bentham who sits in his glass box, just inside the main quad at University College London.
During graduate school, I attended a celebratory wake for the philosopher when UCL was preparing to ship him off to the Met for display in New York. My friend and I were, surprisingly for a university, by far the youngest of the crowd. We joined a table of older women who all clearly knew each other, as well as one of the hosts, and sat awkwardly, whispering between ourselves, with small plastic cups of overpriced wine, waiting for the speeches to begin.
Each speaker addressed death from a different expert angle. The one that has stayed with me most powerfully was a woman who opened her toast by saying that she is passionate about developing a program to bring young children to the morgue to look at the dead bodies of strangers. I was shocked and horrified, and I remember thinking, why on earth would you subject children to that? She carried on that part of what makes the death of loved ones so traumatic is that a loved one’s corpse often the first we’ve seen. Not only are we experiencing a loss, but we are also facing down the new, unpleasant experience of witnessing death up close for the first time. And each subsequent experience is built upon that first traumatic one. She argues that by first interacting with the body of someone unknown to you at a young age, you become desensitized to the shock of seeing the body itself and can instead be better prepared to mourn your loved one.
In this way, it does make sense to present children with small creatures whose deaths they can witness up close, hopefully before the death of a grandparent or other relative. However, this line of thinking does not consider a child having a stronger emotional connection to a pet than a person. That someone would feel a greater loss for the creature that they spend hours each day with than a relative visited a few times a year doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Childhood attachment is not closely tied to the standards we enforce in adulthood. Therefore, when someone is denied the experience of witnessing death, even death of a goldfish, that shift from constant presence to absence is even more severe; one night they’re there, the next morning they have vanished completely. Surely that does not set children up for a successful relationship with death.
My parents learned their lesson from that pre-sunrise fight. From then on, when a fish died it would receive a proper burial and a headstone made of either a decorated rock or tongue depressor of my choice. We lived in downtown Chicago on a plot that had maybe 10 square feet of green space, most of which was filled with flowerbeds my father painstakingly planted and tended to each season. We could not, therefore, bury the fish in our tiny front yard. Aside from logistics, the creepy, tiny headstones would have been visible to every person passing by on the sidewalk, and that would be too embarrassing.
Instead, we would save the dead fish in our freezer alongside the tater tots, frozen peas, and corn, until our next drive two hours into the country to my grandmother’s house. She lived on acres of land atop a hill that faced out to the Rock River. If ever there was a respectable place to bury my fish, it was here. I would pick a plot just beyond her circle driveway among the trees, one of my parents would dig the tiny hole, place the Ziploc bag holding the paper towel-wrapped fish into the hole and bury it. I would say a few words over the headstone, and we would be on our way back inside for cornbread muffins.
This gave me the closure I so badly needed. I felt that my fish had been respectfully treated in death, as they deserved to be. Caitlin Doughty, famed mortician and leader in the death positive movement, emphasizes our primal, innate need to engage in ritual following death. This allows us to move forward in the grief process, diminishing the impact of the sudden absence. By having my own little burial service, and painting their tiny headstones, I had poured my grief into something productive and honored their short lives. The goldfish were just as dead whether they were disposed of by the City of Chicago Sanitation Department or buried in the lawn, but for me, the bereaved, the difference was immeasurable.
A few years after I began burying my fish at Grammy’s house, my mom pulled me aside with a grave look and sat me down.
“Catherine, someone new started landscaping at Grammy’s house, and didn’t know about the fish graveyard and they rode the lawnmower over all of the headstones, and destroyed them. I’m so sorry. We can build new ones.”
“No that’s okay,” I replied. And it was okay. I felt fine knowing that they were still in place, unfortunately not giving back to the land because of the plastic Ziploc bags that take centuries to decompose. They had been given a proper burial and would now rest forever among the dead fish of some of my cousins.
Years later, in my early twenties, I would come to find out that this was not entirely true. While driving with two of my older cousins one turned to the other and said “well, you know there’s a whole graveyard of Dorman fish in Grammy’s yard.”
“Everyone buried their pets in Grammy’s yard!” I insisted from the backseat.
“We lived on a farm, why would we bury a fish?”
“Everyone else had a yard, and I’m not sure how many people buried their fish,” chimed in my other cousin.
“So you mean it was just me?”
And it was just me. I alone had saved fish in the freezer for months to bury in Grammy’s front yard. Grammy has since died and the house and land have been sold. The new owners have no idea that as they drink their coffee and survey the yard from the large kitchen windows, as they take in the old, crumpling barn and the near-ancient trees, they are looking out to a landscape with over a dozen Ziploc bags of rotting goldfish hiding just beneath the surface.