"Spider-Man is dead. What should I do?" That was the exact text to my husband.
My four-year-old's fish, Spider-Man, had laid on his side on the bottom of the tank gasping (or whatever things that don't breathe air do). Since I work from home, I could step out of my office every so often to check in on Spidey. Tap the tank. Speak words of encouragement. I'm pretty sure I even said "breathe, damn you!" out loud. Maybe he was just resting.
We had given our son the heads up (for a few days really) that Spider-Man's days were numbered. And finally his number came up and I panicked. Over a fish. That we'd had for six months, if even. My need to protect my son from the pain of loss was filling me with a peculiar dread. It was his first death.
My heart actually ached as I paced in the kitchen around the sunk Spider-Man (weren't they supposed to float?). And my overactive imagination immediately went to all of the losses and pain that my kids will endure over their lifetimes. The loss of actual human family members. The death of furry pets that they've known their whole lives. The heartbreak of being dumped by their 8th grade soul-mate. The overwhelming disappointment of not making the 2023 Olympic Gymnastics team. Dreams that don't pan out. People who let them down. It's all going to happen. And isn't it my job to protect their little hearts from breaking?
No. I suppose it's not. My youthful heart broke. I experienced loss and grief as a kid and managed my way to adulthood without crumbling. And looking back on it all now...the heartbreaks, the losses, the deaths...how we get through them shapes how we receive joy and the big wins. At least a little bit. When my father died, I learned to welcome the grief and sit with it. Allowing myself to grieve and really feel the loss opened me up to let more life in as I moved forward. This is all to say that I suppose my job is not to protect my kids from the difficulties that their lives deal out. My job is to let it happen, allow them to sit with it, comfort as needed and remind them that joy is waiting.
Now back to Spider-Man. On the drive home from daycare, I told my son that his fish had died.
(Insert sweet, slow music here to set the scene...)
He asked if he could hold the fish. So I dipped my hand down into the fish tank and pinch up the lifeless body of Spider-Man, dried him on a paper towel and placed it in the palm of my little boy's hand. He stared at it for a long bunch of seconds, then looked up at me and whispered....."can I touch its eye?" (Stop the music.) Oh...um, yes you may touch its eye. And with that, my son poked his finger in his dead fish's eye, and said (ever so quietly) "ew." And we walked down the hallway, tossed Spidey into toilet and gave him a flush.
So some losses, perhaps down the road, will be harder than others. At least, I got through this one with a lesson learned. Loss happens. We sit with it. Then poke it in the eye and flush it. Thank you, Spider-Man.