Confession: I lied to my kids about their pet dying

One mom decides to hide the untimely demise of a family pet from her kids.
Gillian with their first pet fish (that Jennifer didn't lie about dying). Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Gillian with her first pet fish—the one Jennifer didn’t lie about. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Growing up on a farm, I accepted the reality that livestock and pets died as a fact of life. My family dealt with death in a very matter-of-fact way. That isn’t to say that we weren’t sad when an animal died, because we were. I remember crying for days when our dog died and after the euthanasia of a beloved horse (it was attacked by a bear). Both experiences were devastating. But each time, we would be encouraged to think happy thoughts and accept that the animal wasn’t coming back to life. There was neither time nor patience for tears in my childhood home.

As a parent, I adopted the same no-nonsense approach to the circle of life. From a pet duck that met an untimely demise in the mouth of a fox to our family cat that was killed by a fisher shortly after we moved to cottage country, I explained to Isaac and Gillian in plain language that their pets had died and wouldn’t be coming back. I hated having these conversations because I saw how deeply sad my kids were—definitely sadder than I ever remember being as a kid. But I stuck to these tough talks because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to have this conversation with my kids many times over the past few months since we’ve had a streak of bad luck with the pet-store fish that don’t seem to live more than a few weeks after we bring them home. We’ve tried different species of fish, tanks and even tank decorations (my suspicion is that my kids are killing the fish with kindness by feeding them too much). Whatever the cause of death, each “burial at sea” (code for toilet flushing) is becoming increasingly difficult for both kids—especially Isaac, who is more sensitive than his sister.

But last week, his betta fish, Sharpie (so named because he wanted the fish to be permanent), started swimming sideways before bedtime, so I knew that the fish would be dead in the morning—and it was. Rather than brace myself for another morning of tears, I did this:

Now if you’ve ever tried to get a doppelgänger for a dead fish, you know it’s nearly impossible. In fact, I’ve had several people on Twitter tell me that (and a few more tell me that I was messing up my kid by lying to him). After visiting three pet stores and leaving empty-handed, I was worried I would have to come clean after all and tell Isaac the truth. But as luck would have it, a fresh and healthy shipment of betta fish had just arrived at the fourth store I visited. I raced home and swapped the fish minutes before the kids got off the school bus.

Isaac never noticed the difference—other than that Sharpie seemed to be more energetic than usual.

I’m sure there’s a study out there that would tell me I did the wrong thing: that lying about a dead pet is a surefire way to give my kids false hope and assumptions about life. Maybe later in life, Isaac will Google his name, find this post and be mad that I lied to him. But I prefer to lump this white lie in with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny—harmless tales that help preserve their innocence for just a little bit longer.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
How to talk to your preschooler about death>
Talking to kids about a pet’s death>

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