Goodbye, Dorothy: Dealing with Loss

As you might recall, we adopted Dorothy the goldfish when our neighbors moved to Vermont…and to be honest I was a bit terrified. My only experience with having pet fish was when I won a few goldfish at a fair when I was about seven years old. Tragically, within a week all of my fish were dead despite my best efforts to care for them, and I was left heartbroken. Now to most people a dead fish is not exactly cause for tears, but from as far back as I can recall I have loved all of my pets on a very deep level. Each and every time one of my beloved animals passed I was left with an intense sadness….even when the pet was a fish or a frog. Each pet received a proper burial in my animal graveyard in our apple orchard, complete with a granite slab headstone placed over their plot so that I could come back to visit. By the time I moved at age 13, my graveyard was an impressive size, chickens and bunnies and frogs and my dog all together in one special place (that to most people would seem super creepy). Anyways back to the point of this story. So I was terrified because I was convinced that Dorothy was going to die. For the first few weeks I woke up each morning sure that I was going to find her belly up in her bowl. Amazingly however, Dorothy didn’t die. She thrived. She loved food and would swim back and forth in the front of her bowl when she saw me or Little C, asking to be fed. Little C adored her and would visit her, talk to her. She loved getting to be the one to feed her – in fact I often bribed her to brush her teeth by allowing her to feed Dorothy her daily fish flakes. And so the months passed and Dorothy swam in her bowl. I started to think that maybe I had just been unlucky with my other fish, that perhaps Dorothy would live a long and happy life in her glass bowl. And then yesterday happened.

My mom has been visiting and watching Little C because her school has been closed this week to prepare for the new school year. How a preschool can close for a ‘new’ school year when the preschool itself is year round I don’t know but that’s another matter entirely. I digress. So this afternoon Little C went to go visit Dorothy like she always does, but when she arrived at Dorothy’s bowl something had changed. Apparently Little C had called out to Grandma Leslie to come look. “Dorothy is gone”, she reported. “This isn’t Dorothy, Dorothy has gone away”. Somehow, Little C recognized that her beloved fish was no longer there, that although her body was still in the bowl, her spirit had gone somewhere else. She wasn’t sad, she was just very matter of fact about it and clearly convinced that the fish resting on the bottom of the bowl could not possibly be her Dorothy. When I got home from work and my mom told me about Dorothy’s demise, I cried. I know, a 28 year old probably shouldn’t cry over a goldfish, but I did. Like I said, I’ve always been a softy when it comes to my pets and I really liked Dorothy. I liked watching Little C talk to her and feed her….and I cried because I didn’t feel ready to discuss the concept of death with the babe. How do you talk about death with a two year old? I had no idea and was totally unprepared, and when Little C asked me where Dorothy had gone, the first thing I could think of was “vacation”. “She went on vacation, babe. Dorothy went on a long vacation”.

Ok, so maybe this wasn’t the best idea, but it was the best idea I could come up with on the spur of the moment. I mean really, how does one explain this daunting and totally foreign concept to a small person who can’t even be convinced that her lady parts are NOT her butt? I don’t know, but for now we are going to stick with the vacation story; Dorothy is taking a forever vacation in the big blue ocean in the sky. But the reality is that I am going to have to figure out how to address this issue much sooner than I would like. My grandfather is very sick and is probably going to pass in a matter of days or a few weeks. The beautiful part about Little C’s age is that she doesn’t find sadness yet in these transitions, she sees them simply as what they are: something that was once there is no longer, and she then accepts the new state of being. I hope that she can always broach death with that kind of acceptance and clarity. It is one of those unfortunate inevitabilities that we all must face, but some rejoice in the life lived and others, like me, seem to get stuck in the loss left behind. Little C is always teaching me about how to live. Funny, considering you would think that it would be the other way around….but I really do learn so much from her and how she sees and interacts with the world around her. Grateful today (and every day) for my little love.

And on that note, I’m going to pour one out today for Dororthy, who is swimming on her forever vacation in the big, blue, beautiful sky.


*Drawing of goldfish by Cassie Sketches