Nella stared at her fish floating on the water in their bowl. I was struck by her silence… so I stood quietly beside her and stared too.
Perhaps it was disbelief, shock, sadness, fear maybe? I couldn’t tell, but something was happening to her consciousness as she processed what was before her. This was not the time for words, this was the time for witnessing and feeling.
After a while, she leaned in closer and gently touched one of the fish with her finger. It bobbed gently on the water, unresponsive. Nella was making sure. She stared some more… death is a very curious thing, especially when you’re six.
Finally she declared, “They’re dead, Grandma.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “They’re dead”.
It was a fact. There was nothing further to add. It’s so tempting to jump in with words of comfort or our own beliefs about death, but better to wait and see if any of that is required… most often it is not.
“I’m sad mommy didn’t get to see them when they were alive and happy,” Nella finally said.
Now it was my turn to be shocked. I would not have guessed that her sadness would be about that. I was glad that I didn’t inject some sad assumption of my own – sad that they died, sad they only lived 4 days etc. I would have missed what the real loss was for her. Loss of the opportunity to share her win at the fair with her mother.
She poked the fish again.
“Can I hold them grandma?” she asked.
“Sure!” I agreed. There was clearly more curiosity to be satisfied and this was worth canceling other plans for.
“Let’s find something to put them in.”
Nella found a little box and lined it with a paper towel.
“It’s like a bed, so they will feel cosy,” she said with a smile. Transformation was happening. Her sadness was being processed and given the chance to transform through her efforts to make her little fishes feel good.
When we actively participate in rituals that care for our dead our grief and loss can move and change so it doesn’t get stuck. We need this. Children need this.
Nella sat with the box, she looked at the fish for a long time – She didn’t ask questions, she didn’t say anything, she just slowly closed the lid.
“We should bury them.” She finally said, matter-of-factly.
I found her a grave-digging spoon and she made the hole and buried the box. Then she broke off a flowered branch from a nearby tree and placed it on top. Finally she scratched the names ‘Goldy’ and ‘Boney’ onto a rock and placed it for a headstone.
She was done. Her satisfaction and pride was palpable. Simple. Important. Profound.
Now we could move on with our day…