Maybe we’re just not fish people

We had a sincere moment of grief in our house today. Our 4-year-old son’s pet betta fish, Mac, died. Technically, it was Mac II, but our son, G, doesn’t know that. The first Mac died within a few hours of joining our family due to poor tank chemistry.

betta fishMac was a beloved pet for about two months. He was G’s first pet that was truly his own and he loved taking care of him. My wife, Susan, and I loved that G was taking responsibility for feeding him every night and reminding me every Saturday to clean his little one-gallon tank.

In recent weeks, though, cleaning the tank was low on the priority list. I had a few other pressing matters and I wouldn’t clean it every Saturday. This weekend, Susan tried to do me a favor and cleaned his tank. She did everything right except one thing. The water was too warm, and she inadvertently cooked Mac. He was dead, and we had to tell G.

Neither of us wanted to because we knew we were deliberately breaking his heart. We could have just done what we did for Mac I and just replace him with a new fish, but I felt it was important to give G an understanding of death.

I went into the family room and told G we needed to go upstairs to look at Mac. G knew Mac was sick because Susan had said so earlier when he wasn’t as lively as he had been. Upstairs we went and I showed G that the little fish that lived in a tank next to his bed for the past few months was now dead. G has a basic understanding that death is final. He got a taste of that when my grandmother died last year, but it has always been an abstract.

He looked at Mac, and looked at me and started to cry. He stopped before the tears and said, “We have to tell mommy.” G ran downstairs saying, “Mac isn’t living anymore.” I called him back upstairs because we needed to give Mac a little send-off. I scooped Mac’s lifeless body out of the tank into the cup he was in when we bought him. I told G we needed to send Mac to be with the other fishes. You can probably predict what happened next.

We walked into his bathroom, and I put the cup in G’s hands. I told him that we have to send dead fish back to the rest of the fishes. I know this may sound cruel, but not far from our home the area sewage treatment plant which discharges clean water into a local river and we’ve talked about this before.

Immediately, G was in tears. He missed Mac, well – Mac II, and we hugged while he sobbed in true grief. I asked him if he wanted to get a new Mac. He agreed, so we got in the car and went to the local PetSmart. He picked out a nice new Mac. This one even looked better than the last Mac.

As soon as we got home, G was excited to get the tank set up for the new Mac. We emptied the little tank. I rinsed the rocks and plastic plants, and I filled the tank with new water. I put in the water conditioner, and I set Mac in the water while he was still in his little cup for a while so he could get adjusted to the water. Everything was just right.

We returned to our evening activities, which included a ham dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday. By bedtime, though, it was clear the new Mac, Mac III, was dead. Susan told G that he was just resting because he was so happy to be in a new home. But she knew better. We would be going back to PetSmart to take advantage of their seven-day guarantee to get a Mac IV, but this time would be more like the first.

As we considered what our next move would be, Susan said, “Maybe we’re just not fish people.” Maybe.