Lying to My Toddler About Death Haunted Me

I thought she'd forget and I'd cover the concept of death later on.

I like to believe I was pretty chill as a first-time mom. Not crazy over-protective, able to be a little flexible with baby’s schedule, generally an easy-going parent. Of course, now I'm on my second, I laugh about how uptight I really was with my first.

As many parents know, it's a very different experience raising subsequent kids.

From the time she could pull herself to standing, my eldest child loved our aquarium. “Fish” was one of her first words. She spent many wide-eyed hours tracing the lazy paths of our goldfish, Sashimi and Sachin, swimming around the tank.

I've had incredible luck with goldfish. Some I lose within a month of purchase, but if they make it past that threshold, they tend to live six or seven years. But lo and behold, one fateful night, I found Sashimi belly up. He'd had a long and (I think) somewhat happy life. I wished him a fond farewell and gave him the ceremonial flush. My daughter was two and a half at the time.

A highly observant, verbal toddler, she peered into the waters the next morning and asked, “Where's Sashimi?”

I panicked. I overreacted. I swiftly convinced myself that I needed to shelter her a little longer against the atrocities of the world. I couldn't bring myself to explain death to this happy child so early in her years. And so, I lied.

“Sashimi wasn't feeling well and went to stay at the fish doctor’s for awhile.”

I thought she'd forget and I'd cover the concept of death a little later on. I mean, she often forgot to go to the bathroom in time - surely this too would quickly pass from her mind.

The child NEVER forgot. Every few months for the next two years she’d say “When is Sashimi coming back?” or “Can we take Sachin to visit Sashimi?” Or “Will Sachin go to fish doctor’s if he gets sick?”

On and on.

She'd tell guests about Sashimi and I'd colour in shame. How could I let the dishonesty continue?

One day, I snuggled her close and told her the truth about the deceased fish. By then, she'd seen countless squished worms on the sidewalk and inspected a few lifeless flies upon the windowsill. She had a concept of death.

We talked about why Mommy had lied, and how that was wrong, but I had thought her two-year-old self would have been too sad. We cuddled and chatted. And soon she went on to tell guests the whole story of my lie and the truth.

Enter child number two. Last month, in celebration of her second birthday, we took an exciting trip to the pet store and adopted Fish and Chips into our lives.

This time, two little faces pushed up against the glass to check the daily swim path. Two excited voices wishing “Good day” to our water-bound pets.

Unfortunately, Fish and Chips were not from hearty stock. Chips was the first to go.

Determined to approach this opportunity differently this time around, I let the girls witness the pluck and flush. We all said goodbye to Chips as she swirled on to her final resting place.

Did my youngest crumble at the loss of her beloved pet? Did I need to shield her from the impermanence of life?

Nope. The next day, she skipped up to my mom and proudly announced, “Chips died! In toilet!” and ran off to play.

And no more lies from this Mama.

Rest in peace, little fishies.

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Erin Chawla is the far-from-perfect, doting mama to two precocious little people who fill her life with joyful mess. She loves all things learning, and is currently learning to cook, because apparently families need to be fed.

Erin has been working in the field of education for nearly two decades, teaching everything from JK to grade 8. She specializes in working with struggling students, especially those with learning disabilities. She’s continually fascinated with developing minds and how our brains impact our lives.

A lover of reading, writing and great storytelling, Erin’s twitter handle is @learnconcern and she can be found on Pinterest and Facebook under Erin Chawla. She can also be found dining in her husband’s restaurants whenever her cooking experiments go awry.