As a pastor, how I talked to my son about his fish dying.
For Christmas, two years ago, we bought my now three year old son a beta fish. We asked him for a good name, and because he had been in the pet store earlier looking at birds, he decided the best name for our fish was Tweet Tweet.
I’ll admit, I was not always the biggest fan of Tweet Tweet. The plan had been, I think, for my son to learn how to care for a pet of his own. But the reality was that I fed Tweet Tweet, cleaned up after Tweet Tweet, tapped on the side of his bowl to greet Tweet Tweet. That is… I did all of that, until Tweet Tweet died.
I spent some time just now, before righting my next thought, to wonder if I should use the word died. Tweet Tweet died. We have better euphemisms… passed on, breathed his last, went to meet his maker, journeyed to fish heaven. But part of the problem is that death has become so foreign for us, so avoided, that the moment we come face to face with it, we become frozen.
And this is not to say I am any better just because I am a pastor.
When I saw Tweet Tweet floating as dead fish do, I immediately felt sad for Tweet Tweet, then moved on to… what am I going to tell my son? I went downstairs and told my wife, while my son looked on, “Tweet Tweet D-I-E-D.” I spelled it out because I hadn’t planned, or thought of, how we would deal with the first death my son would face. My wife said, “oh no!” My son said, “what happened to Tweet Tweet?” and ran upstairs.
I had not cleaned anything up yet, as I was still a bit shocked that Tweet Tweet had already died, and followed him quickly up the stairs. My wife followed us as well.
The first question, “what is tweet tweet doing?”
“Buddy, Tweet Tweet has gone to be with God.”
“Tweet Tweet, died?”
“That’s right, he left his body behind.”
“Won’t he need his Penis?” Remember my son is three.
“He probably won’t need it in heaven.”
“What about his butt crack?” Remember my son is three.
“I don’t think there will be poop in heaven.”
My son breathed a heavy breath and said, “What now?”
“We have to think about how we want to say Goodbye to Tweet Tweet and how we will… take care of his body.”
“He won’t need his Penis?”
“Do you want to send Tweet Tweet home by flushing him down the toilet or burying him in the front yard?”
“The front yard. What will we bury him in?”
And then we spent the next ten minutes creating a coffin out of an R2-D2 Puzzle box filled with bedding and excessive amount of fish food. We grabbed the post hole digger and went out into the front yard. We silently dug the hole and placed Tweet Tweet inside. My son and I placed the dirt, one handful at a time, back into the hole.
“Do you want to say anything to Tweet Tweet?”
“Goodbye, Tweet Tweet.”
“Goodbye, Tweet Tweet.”
“You were a good fish and friend, Tweet Tweet.”
“You were a good fish.”
“See you again, later.”
“See you again!”
And if you think the story ends there, you’ve never met a three year old.
Every night as my son falls asleep he demands that we talk about the “sad part and happy part” of his day. You might know it as highs and lows or thorns and roses, but for a three year old, sad part and happy part is about as good as it gets. You can guess what his sad part was that night.
“Tweet Tweet died.”
“That was sad.”
“Tweet Tweet is with God?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Does everyone die?”
“I don’t want to die.”
And then I started to sweat. Even as a Pastor who talks a great deal about death and faces a lot of people going through these last things, it is not necessarily something I am prepared to talk about with my son, and it is certainly not something I want to ever imagine my son going through.
I kicked the can down the road, “You are not going to die anytime soon.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“I’m not going to die anytime soon.” Hopefully.
“What happens when you die?”
“You go to heaven. It is the next thing. It is like here, but everything is better. Everyone is there. Everyone is happy. Everyone has all the food and toys they want.”
“Will our house be there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t want to go then.”
“We will have a better house, God’s house.”
“Is it a big house?”
“A very big house.”
“Does God have tools?” My son is obsessed with repairing our house, fixing leaks only he can see, making holes in the wall (sometimes real ones).
“God just makes things happen, so I don’t know if he needs tools.”
“Will we help fix things?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where is the fun in that?”
“The fun of heaven is that we get to be with everyone we love forever.”
“But no tools?”
“You can probably have tools.”
“I want tools.”
“Then you can have them.”
“I miss Tweet Tweet.”
“You’ll see him again.”
I wrote this out, not because I have all the answers, but because it is something we all struggle to answer. What will eternity be like? How do we talk about it with our little ones? How do we face the inevitable we don’t want to face?
It is not an easy discussion and there are no easy answers. I have experienced enough in my life to be confident the end of our bodies is not the end of our lives, but that doesn’t make these conversations any simpler. I think the only thing we can do is be honest, have the conversations, and be as gentle as possible.