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When Fish Die

A story about my son's fish dying & the opening that comes when you handle something seemingly insignificant with sincerity & vulnerability.

Photo of Ned Buskirk
10 12

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My 4-year-old son walked into the kitchen this morning to tell us his fish had died in the night. Admittedly, my knee-jerk reaction, or the thought that first emerged, probably a result of my own childhood "death of a pet" experience, was a quick toilet flush. But, as hard as it was, as unsure as I felt, I put off getting to work on time, my wife and I stopped, we kneeled, we listened and made time for a burial, not to mention a surprising amount of emotion, from all of us...

We buried Namo in the backyard and talked about what happens when things die and how dead things help new things grow. My son said he wanted to go to a "Die Museum" and wanted to know if his fish would be alive again... and he cried. And we cried. A lot of tears over such a simple thing, but, even though a portal of daunting unanswered questions seemed officially open for my son, I knew it was our responsibility to deal with the loss in as sacred a way as possible. In a culture where there is such little time made for grief, using any chance we get to acknowledge the great truth of life - that all things die - is our choice, not only as parents, but as human beings. And I don't mean forcing the discussion whenever possible, but making space for real loss, however small, creates movement for all the grief we might have riding under the surface of daily life... 

When my son cried out: "I'm thinking of Namo never dying again!" or when he almost instantly started talking about his own death and, eventually, ours, I wept hard and held him... I could feel all the grief pour out, the sorrow I feel when my children suffer, the pain I feel knowing what they stand to lose in this life, but also responsible for opening my arms to the questions, even though I don't always feel like I have the answers. 

After the burial, I held my one-year-old daughter in our backyard, at my feet a tiny fish grave, and above us a flock of little yellow birds flew through our tree and out into the neighborhood, all in an instant, with my little girl making her big O-mouth excited face. In that moment, feeling much more alive than before my son stepped into the kitchen, I stood between a little death and so much life, I felt it richly, deeply present to what we must go through, what our children must go through, but very alive and maybe even courageous...

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Be vulnerable.


Ned Buskirk


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Photo of Nancy Rapport

Bravo, Ned! You taught your son some incredible lessons...that a fish was important enough to mourn and that your son's grief deserved your presence and support more than the folks at work. This beautiful space you and your wife created for your boy will stick with him, and he will be more equipped to handle future losses. 

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