A Fishy Tale of Toddler Grief:Losing your First Pet

I grew up in a house where my dad was anti-pets. He loves animals a lot but doesn’t like the idea of them being separated from their families/environment for our pleasure.

When BabyA saw friends’ pets and asked for one, I realised that Nandy and I were on the same page about this- no pets! Although he had an African parrot as a child, he just felt like the loss of a pet is too heart-wrenching. One may argue that it helps kids understand loss, but Nandy preferred to keep BabyA away from this life lesson just yet.

Then we went for a child’s pool party, and as the return gift, we received a real fighter fish in a goldfish bowl with a tag that said, “Thanks for swimming by”. It was adorable (the idea and the fish), but I didn’t want it. BabyA had already spotted it and there’s no conceivable way to get a 3 year old out of a party without a return gift! We would have to take this one home.

After we got home, Nandy and I felt like it was a really big decision that someone else had made for us; gifting anyone a living thing other than a plant should be done with consent of the receiver (We’re vegetarians and so we tend to be paranoid about silly things that really don’t matter!) We dabbled with the idea to give her away to our cousins with a tank, but now that the fish had entered our home, BabyA would not let go.

My mother in law convinced us that we were being the kind of crazy parents that we don’t like, and so the fish was here to stay. Besides disliking having a new pet, BabyA also found a giggly-headed girly, fake boa scarf-wearing, ‘Sonam-Kapoor-in-Aisha’ type of name for her: Pinkerella! And as all kids that want pets do, BabyA never fed her more than a week. All the “keeping-Pink-alive” work was ours (so no learning for her in terms of lessons of responsibility by mothering a pet).

I googled away on how to change the water and feed her (NOT overfeed her as my Indian mother genes pushed me to do sometimes). Nandy would come home every evening and after checking on BabyA, would check on his new baby, P. In the mornings, he would often rush to the bowl, and click his fingers, shouting out like a hyper, new father, “She’s not moving!” till Pink took cue and did.

I know she’s a fighter fish- an easy pet and not one that comes and slobbers her love all over your face. The most amount of emotion that we have seen her emit is when she would excitedly circle her bowl as BabyA walked in from school. I know it’s not like loving a dog but we grew very fond of Pink. I had seen her throw up (yes, Fish throw up) but recover. We hadn’t been through a lot together, but eight months had bonded us.

Today Pink died. Yesterday the maid told me that she had skipped two meals. We sensed that she was getting sick but it’s a fish: There’s no place I can call for emergency services, or no vet who would entertain me with her possible mental problems. I sensed that this anorexia may have been caused by a loving, but nagging Nandy who would keep saying, “Pinkerella is getting fat and lazy!” I don’t know how fat she could get on two pieces of fish food twice a day, but that was Nandy being Nandy. I fear that that may have caused some fishy self-esteem issues, which may have caused her to reject food altogether eventually! (After all, nasty Nandy must get blamed for everything!)

I was sad when the maid told me Pink wasn’t moving. She had outlived her tiny fish life! I remembered how much we sniggered as teens, when our friend had lost his dog, and was grieving so hard that he didn’t step out for days. Today, as my brother mocked that he, as the ‘mama’*, was meeting the fish pandit at Trishna* restaurant to discuss the cremation formalities, I understood what it means to lose a pet (okay- so I actually laughed a lot, but lets just say that I finally understood what my friend had felt).

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the barrage of emotions when BabyA came home. I told her calmly and thought she would be ok because she had recently dealt with two deaths in the family, but this was something else. She sobbed and sobbed- not a tantrumy stomp nor an angry wail- it was a real grieving cry that just refused to end. She was crying like I did when I lost my grand-mom. This was real for her: The loss of her first pet.

I didn’t know how to console her, and as I ran out of sensible explanations for how this was not a bad thing (fish fairies looking after her?), I hugged her and wept. It was the first time I had really seen my child grieve and I couldn’t whip out a distraction, or put a bandaid and make the boo-boo better. It was the one time I wasn’t Super Mom, who could set everything straight. I was the helpless mum, who could just hold her hand through it.



*mama- maternal uncle

*Trishna- popular sea food restaurant in Mumbai