On Handling the Death of a Family Pet

Grieving with a new fish tank but no fish.Grieving with a new fish tank but no fish.This week, I had the bright idea of replacing the leaking 7+ year-old fish tank we had with a new one. The tank had long been a fixture in my daughter's room, and for the past five to six years had been home to a single silvery gray and black striped tropical fish of indeterminate species, who came to be known as Robofish.

Robofish was the fish that wouldn't -- it seemed couldn't -- die.

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He'd been through long stretches of days without heat or aeration several times -- during snowstorms and hurricanes and a particularly nasty nor'easter -- and over the years had weathered environmental extremes that one would suppose your average delicate tropical fish couldn't bear. But Robofish could. He was bulletproof -- unstoppable. PART FISH, PART MACHINE, ALL AWESOME.

Until I put him in his sparkling, shiny-new tank, of course.

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Let me say upfront that I'd done my research. I knew about tank cycling. About making sure the tank water was properly conditioned. And of course, about rinsing new gravel and proper pre-cleaning of the tank. I did everything the aquarium guides tell you to do before relocating a fish from one tank to another. And I was confident that Robofish would be happy in his brand-spanking new, pristine aquatic environment.

Then, mere hours after introducing him to it, I found him floating at the top of the tank. *headdesk*

Maybe the 7-years worth of bacteria and aquatic ick in his leaky-tank environment was the only thing keeping him alive? (Of course I cleaned the tank regularly over 7 years time, but you know how bacteria tends to stick around… just spitballin' here.)

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My daughter handled the news of Robofish's demise like a champ (in fact, after about 30 seconds of what seemed like genuine, mournful tears, her immediate response was "When can we get another fish? OR A TURTLE?!"). But I was reminded of the painful bargain we all strike when we get pets, whether they're fish or cats or dogs or hamsters. One day, despite all our best efforts to keep them safe and healthy and, well, ALIVE, we lose them.

Circle of life, Simba, circle of life.

Is it worth it? Of course it is. The joy pets bring to our lives, and the ways their love and companionship enrich our days, are immeasurable. I can't imagine a life without at least one cat or dog in it, for example (and right now I have two cats and THREE dogs). To me, having and loving pets is part of what living life is about, no question.

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That doesn't mean it makes losing them easier. And the more we love them, the more it hurts losing them -- this I know from personal experience.

Robofish was a good fish, and in our own way, we loved him. We appreciated his Terminator-like fish qualities, and he'd become a part of our every day life, for sure. I wouldn't say our feelings for him were anything like how we feel for our cats and dogs -- who are of course much more interactive and more integrated as members of the family -- but we were certainly sad to see him go.

And of course now I had a brand new tank with a vacancy. What to do, what to do…
The new tankThe new tank

- By Tracey Gaughran-Perez
Follow Tracey at Babble

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