Parenting: A lesson in life and death

by Melanie Sisinni

My husband and I are not “pet people.” He’s allergic to cats, and I don’t want anything or anyone else to take care of right now, so we won’t be changing our perspective any time soon.

fishMy husband grew up with a dog, and my mother-in-law felt like our kids were missing out on a necessary life experi-ence, so she asked if getting each of our girls a fish was OK. I agreed, knowing that this would inevitably lead to a discussion about life and death.

The girls and their grammy returned from the pet store, arms filled with aquarium rocks, plants, décor for the fishbowls and, of course, two betta fish. With childhood memories of my betta fish living for multiple years, I thought we had some time before these new fish met their inevitable demise.

I was wrong.

Bluey Sisinni, as Gianna named her, lived for less than a month before dying of water shock when I changed the water in her bowl. As I watched the color slowly drain from Bluey, the girls who were once happily watching me clean the bowls started asking questions.

“What’s wrong with Bluey, Mom? Why is she all white? Why isn’t she moving? Is she dead?”

Question after question came pouring out of their mouths as panic that something wasn’t right settled in. Surely, this was something Mommy could fix, right?

The thought of telling them that Bluey was “just sleeping” and quickly running to the pet store for Bluey 2.0 went through my mind, but I decided against it. The kids already knew something wasn’t right, so I just went with the truth. I thought Gianna would be upset — Bluey was her fish, after all. But at 2 years old, the loss didn’t affect her more than a broken toy or a missing doll shoe. Stella, on the other hand, was hysterical. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she screamed and cried. How could this happen?

Through her tears and grief over this fish that had been ours for barely four weeks, Stella immediately sprang into action, a true firstborn. According to her, Bluey needed a full funeral with a casket and a burial with all our friends and family in attendance. I’m sure she would have asked for a 21-gun salute if she had known what it was.

I decided to take this opportunity to introduce the concept of death and dying to my little ones, who had yet to experience anything like this.

Throughout the years, popes have expressed different thoughts on whether pets have souls and go to heaven. Pope Pius IX addressed the issue in the 19th century, saying heaven is reserved for those with souls and a conscience, which animals don’t have. However, in a 1990 papal audience, Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed that “animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren.” Pope Benedict XVI shared similar sentiments with John Paul II. He cited the Book of Genesis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, stating that animals are God’s creatures and should be respected.

While we may not know what happens to our pets when they die, we can lean on these statements from former heads of the Catholic Church.

Having been to several funerals and wakes as an adult, I’ve always found myself caught off-guard by the pale skin of the deceased. Their souls have truly gone from their bodies. Since Stella had specifically asked why Bluey lost her mostly blue hue, I explained as best as I could in 5-year-old terms.

“I’m so sorry, but Bluey died, Stella. Her soul has left her body. That’s why she’s lost her color. She’s not really with us in that bowl anymore.”

The topic of Bluey’s untimely departure was, and still is, a hot topic in our house. Guests are greeted at the door with “Bluey DIED,” from Gianna, leading to us having to tell the whole tale of the betta fish who has gone to her eternal home, wherever that may be.

By truthfully discussing death with my kids, I’ve made it a normal part of life. It might be a little much to greet guests with it, but at least my kids have a child’s awareness that this does inevitably happen to all living things. As they get older, as with all topics, the discussion will become more detailed and more serious, especially when it comes to a loved one. But for now, the girls will think of Bluey Sisinni, hopefully living blissfully in her fishy afterlife.

- Melanie Sisinni oversees social media for the Diocese of Erie and serves as editor of the Diocese of EriE-News.