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Dealing with Death: When a Loved One Isn’t Coming Back

Dealing with Death: When a Loved One Isn’t Coming Back

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I have a 55 gallon fish aquarium at Park West Montessori School. Many fish can live it in at one time. I have had my share of types of fish including  African Cichlids that were constantly reproducing, to community fish of Gouramis and Loaches. There is one lone survivor, a 6″ long Plecostomous, who survived a pH imbalance, multiple water changes and many different neighbors.


Many children and families gaze at the aquarium when they visit the school’s admissions office for the first time. Some children remember the fish and come back to visit them when they enroll. Each year a few children come to say hello to the fish when they arrive in the morning and say goodbye when they leave for the day – everyday they attend.

Children notice when a fish is missing. They ask, “where is the silly fish?”, “is it hiding”? What do we say when the fish has died and isn’t coming back?

Child development experts believe that it is good for children to have pets and learn about life cycles so they have some experience with death and dying on a smaller level before a human loved one dies.

Young children go through stages of understanding of learning when a love one is there, gone, and coming back. The term object permanence refers to the ability to know that objects and people continue to exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard. Babies and toddlers do not understand that when adults leave the room that they will return.

As children mature physically and cognitively, they learn to anticipate when a parent or care giver will return. They learn to predict the schedule of the day. Rest comes after lunch and then I go home after snack. Although early childhood aged children seem to have a better understanding about death and appear to take the news of Grammy’s death as a natural occurrence they are just beginning to understand what it means when someone is never coming back. Conversations will continue to occur long after the loved one dies. A child will ask a month later when Grammy is coming to visit, or ask to call her on the telephone.

Explaining about death is a difficult and daunting task that you hope you are prepared to do when the time comes so you are not caught like a “deer in headlights” and say the first thing that comes to mind. Here are a few things to consider when discussing death.

  1. Keep the language you use age-appropriate. Answer questions simply without a long explanation or cause of disease and death.
  2. Be honest. Spinning a softer, more comfortable story may lead you further down the rabbit hole. Better to be brief and truthful.
  3. Never tell a child that some one who died is asleep. For some children this can cause fears of going to sleep themselves.
  4. Keep it true to your family’s values and beliefs.
  5. Leave it open for discussion. Answer the questions as they occur including what other people may believe.  

Books are a wonderful lead into life’s difficulties. Here are a few titles on the topic of death for 3-5 year old children:

  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
  • The Two of Them by Aliki
  • I Had a Friend Named Peter by Janice Cohn
  • I Miss You by Pat Thomas
  • The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst
  • Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie De Paola
  • Jasper’s Day by Marjorie Blain Parker
  • I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
  • Lifetimes: the beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie  

Which leads me back to the aquarium and life under water. What is the lifespan of tropical fish? Will the Clown Loach who died be missed? Where did he go?


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