Life and Death on a Sunday Morning

Sunday morning, Chris left early to be at work for the Target Festival. That left me wrangling the yahoos. I had approximately 45 minutes to get some breakfast in their bellies, stuff them into church clothes, and get myself ready.

Death never comes at convenient times, does it?

Bean went running into the kitchen, demanding his two favorite morning routines: his vitamin and to feed our fish, Lt. Dan.


We got Lt. Dan for Bean’s first birthday. I thought he needed a pet, and since Chris wouldn’t let me get a hampster, I was left with a fish as my only option. Don’t get me wrong. I love fish as much as one can love a pet that you can’t hold, pet, or walk. And Bean seemed perfectly happy to sit there and watch Lt. Dan swim in his Army bowl.


(Fun facts: There is an Army guy in the bowl is not because we practice violence around our house, but because at the time, Bean’s favorite thing on earth were the Army guys from “Toy Story.” Also, we named him Lt. Dan because he ain’t got no legs.)

So, Sunday morning, Bean goes hauling into the kitchen. I gave him his vitamin, and he immediately perched at the bookshelf by our kitchen table where Lt. Dan lived.

“Mom!” he yelled. “Why isn’t Lt. Dan waking up?”

Awww, crap.

I went over to the bowl, and sure enough. There was Lt. Dan. Swimming with the fishes.

Awww, crap.

I told Bean that Lt. Dan must still be sleepy, and that maybe we could check on him again after breakfast (…once I’d thought through teaching death to my three-year-old a little more). As the kids were eating, I very covertly snuck Lt. Dan’s bowl up to my bathroom, and placed a desperate call to my dad to find out what to do now. Dad said I needed to flush the fish and water, and then I could clean out the bowl and accessories. But, I don’t really like fish stuff. Too slimy. So, I flushed the fish, and then put the bowl with all it’s rocks and Army guys in a trash bag, and threw it all out.

I came back down to breakfast and was immediately met by Bean who asked where Lt. Dan had gone.

Awww, crap.

There was no avoiding this. I was going to have to say SOMETHING. Quickly, I weighed through my moral responsibility to my child. Should I tell him Lt. Dan had gone on vacation? Moved to Disney? Went to the beach? Was at brunch with friends? Had recently discovered the call of the wild? Or, should I just use brute honesty? “Kid, the fish is dead and he’s never coming back.”

I went with something in between.

I didn’t sit down and have a big dramatic conversation with Bean about death. He’s too young for that. Instead, I casually explained as I cleaned up breakfast that Lt. Dan he had died. And I told him that after someone dies, they go to Heaven to live with God. So, Lt. Dan wasn’t going to live with us anymore because he had gone to live with God.

Bean thought about that for a minute, and then asked if we could visit Lt. Dan at church (because we call that God’s house).

Awww, crap.

And so I thought about it for a second. Now would be the perfect time to talk to Bean about prayer and communicating with God and how God takes care of people after they die.

Instead, I told him that, yes, he could visit Lt. Dan at church. And that morning, we went by the koi pond at our church, and I pointed to something that vaguely resembled a blue fish and said, “Look! It’s Lt. Dan!”  Then, I whirled Bean away before he could get a good look.


Someone better write a parenting manual for this crap before my kids get any smarter.

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24 Thoughts to “Life and Death on a Sunday Morning”

  1. Back in March my husband’s grandmother passed away. There was no way around explaining it to our four year old, but surprisingly, he handled it really well. We didn’t go into a lot of detail and kept the explanation simple. I was worried that he’d be scared by the concept of death, but he thought about it, said, “Okay”, and went on with life.

  2. Enjoy fishy heaven, Lt. Dan 🙂

  3. Kathleen

    Oh man. I had the same problem telling my two-year-old daughter what happened to the bird our dog caught in the sunroom earlier this summer. I said, “The birdie doesn’t feel well, so I’m just going to lay it in this box”…which eventually went into our outdoor garbage can. Sighhhh.

  4. This is a talk I don’t look forward to. And I laughed at the name, despite the sad story.

  5. Aw, poor Lt. Dan! Has Bean asked for another fish yet, or is he content with visiting “his” fish at church?

  6. Jessica W.

    When I was 5 a dog got to my cat, Blackie. He severely injured. After a bunch of surgery and hospital stay, he was back and healthy as ever! I found out when I was older how much it cost to save him, my dad apparently looked right at the vet and yelled “I don’t care how much it costs! You just save him because she is 5 and I am NOT ready to have that conversation yet!!!” Had that cat for another 17 years.

  7. Kat

    I think that you handled it absolutely perfect! Especially the pond idea – genius. RIP Lt. Dan.

  8. Holli

    Oh this is too funny. I’m almost positive I would’ve done the same thing. Bravo!

  9. Nikki

    Lt. Dan had a pretty long life, considering that of a betta. I am much older than Bean and lost my betta, Hudson, not that long ago…and I think I took it much harder. We have a big tank with lots of fish, but he was the special one. After that pretty emotional loss I have decided that it’s all generic nameless fish from here. I can’t imagine what I’m going to do when I have to talk to my kid about this. Might save that for the hubs…

  10. Tears are rolling down my face at the untimely departure of Lt. Dan! We have two HBO specials that we watch quite often as part of Nate’s bedtime routine – Goodnight, Moon, which is celebrities reading bedtime stories, and Twas the Night, which is a celebration of all wintertime religious holidays (Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa). Each episode is interspersed with interviews with real kids about this, that and the other thing and both DVDs include death – of a parent or a grandparent. The kids are about 7 – 9; take a watch to see what their take is on the whole thing. The Goodnight, Moon is about how you visit these departed people in your dreams; Twas the Night is a bit harder because it’s about lost traditions (opening presents with Dad). But it’s not a bad place to start when thinking about how these conversations will go down the road.

  11. Poor Lt. Dan. Love the pond idea 😉

  12. That’s hilarious and awesome, and I can’t believe you threw out the entire tank, pebbles and everything…. you know you’re probably going to be buying another fish… right? =)

  13. You handled things just great! Thanks for sharing all your stories, we have a seven week old daughter and I know we will have to deal with the same thing one of these days.

  14. Aww poor buddy. Sorry to hear about Lt. Dan! He will be missed. Hey, at least you didn’t do what my friend’s grandmother did. She told her that their cat went on “vacation”, and he obviously never came back. Then when someone later said to Heather, “We’re going on a vacation!” , she screamed, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” You know, because if the cat didn’t come back, what were her odds?

  15. Bwahahahaha! I was so with you until the koi pond. That made me fall over laughing. Anyway, so sorry for Beanie about Lt. Dan. I wouldn’t worry toooo much about death at this age and talk about how we can get a new pet fishie when Daddy gets home!

  16. Ha – this post made me giggle out loud. Don’t we parents get a manual????

  17. When I taught preschool, I had a fish tank in our classroom. Whenever a fish would die (which was, like, WAY too often), I would tell the kids the fish went to live with Jesus. Since I taught at a Lutheran school, this was ok. But this post reminded me of a funny story that I just decided had to be shared on my blog. Ha ha.

  18. Amy

    I sooooo needed this laugh today 🙂 Please do keep us updated on how many Sundays you have to go and visit Lt. Dan! We had fish, yes had………but before I ever gave in to get them, I said something like this, “Fish die and when they do, we flush them down the toilet. No tears or there will be no more fish.” Yes, I’m cold-hearted, but we’ve never had to talk about the death of a fish because it’s ‘just what happens’. However, we have a cat that is old……..we may all die with him.

  19. I don’t understand the concept of flushing a fish down a toilet. I think I would have had a funeral and buried him in the backyard. Why do people do that? Where did that start?

  20. Oh Katie, I’ve been away on vacation and just getting caught up on your blog. Your line death doesn’t come at convient times does it is horrible foreshadowing isn’t it. I am so sorry for your family. Last year I had to explain death to my 2 year old. At least I was only talking about a dog but then a few weeks later I was talking about a relative. At least I had a “dress rehearsal” for the talk. Life is never easy. Somewhere down the road, way down the road when you can handle it, I would love to know how you handled explaining the loss of your father to Bean.

  21. […] I asked my mom the first night what she thought we should tell Bean.  I was at a complete loss, but I knew he would wake up at Nana and Granddad’s house and ask where Granddad was.  My mom said she didn’t care what we told him, but please not to tell him that Granddad was in the koi pond with Lt. Dan. […]

  22. […] Without even looking up from the book he was reading, Bean goes, (Yeah, he’s at the North Pole with Lt. Dan.) […]

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