After divorce, when a fish is not just a fish

single goldfish in glass bowl in front of ominous purple background

By Samantha Shanley

When I found my son’s Betta fish lying dead at the bottom of its bowl, my first instinct was to take care of business by tossing it into the toilet and walking away.

The fish was roughly the size of my kindergartener’s index finger, and it had never interacted with my son the way any kind of mammal might have. The fish was therefore more of a thought than a pet; it was something to look at, to ponder.

Instead of flushing it down the toilet, I stared at it. The fish was lying on its gills, its glorious fins spread out like mermaid hair, wavering over the colorful gravel below.

True, it was only a fish—who cared that it was gone, and yet, poor thing, it was only a fish—who cared, really, that it had ever been alive?

This particular fish had been one of threethe other two were still swimming around in their own bowls, unaware of the first one’s fate. They were placeholder pets; I had given one to each of my three children a year earlier when their father and I were in the process of divorce, after our family dog had died, and many months before we brought home a kitten in his stead. Perhaps the fish were feeble replacements for all that we had lost, but they were also hopeful things, their mere existence like the promise of a new, better life to come. Still, their significance was easy for most of us to overlook.

Every time my mother called to video chat with my kids, she asked after the fish, as though their welfare could be measured directly against ours.

“Are they still…alive?” she would ask, hesitantly.

“MOM!” I would yell from across the room.

“Why does she keep asking us that?” The kids finally asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied, but of course I did know. Even my neglected houseplants had a better chance of outliving these creatures—that’s just the way it was.

It surprised me then, that after checking the fish’s muted gills for any signs of life and finding none, I mourned it for ten seconds before blossoming into some kind of relief. I likened this feeling to the process of tidying up after a dinner party, sweeping the countertop of unnecessary things, as though the fish had been a set of wine glasses or salad forks to be put away in the cupboard.

That was just it, though—we didn’t need the fish anymore. My children and I were doing well, finally, after nearly two years in emotional limbo.

I decided to first tell my 12-year-old daughter, Ila, about the fish’s fate, because I thought her initial reaction could serve as a barometer for how my other two kids would react to the situation. When I told her what had happened, her eyes opened wide.

“Oh, no!” she gasped. Then she smiled, and we both giggled. The fish had belonged to my youngest, Kieran, who was prone to overreacting to disappointmentsurely he would take this turn of events dramatically, and my daughter and I braced ourselves. “I’ll do it,” she volunteered, offering to be the one to tell him. 

Kieran had been playing outside in the snow. When he walked into the mudroom, my daughter helped him take off his boots and told him about the fish.

He looked at me, surprised, and then opened his mouth into a solemn, obligatory wail. I cringed, wishing I could have protected him from any further loss, and yet, how bad could this really be?

“We have to have a funeral!” Quinn, my practical middle child declared when he heard the news. Kieran stopped wailing and agreedthere is no comfort like an action plan.

And so began the preparations. The dead fish, meanwhile, floated in a bowl on the countertop—a temporary morgue—while I fixed dinner.

Kieran bustled around next to me, producing a small cardboard box for the fish’s body. He lined it with colorful tissue paper and set it next to the cutting board for me, the imputed undertaker. I scooped the fish body out of the bowl with a soup spoon, laid it into the box, and carefully closed the lid.

The kids had arranged the living room like a sanctuary. There was a chair wedged full of stuffed animals, like a single pew of congregation members who had come to pay their respects. Kieran’s best friend, our next-door neighbor, had come in from the snow to join us.

My daughter walked to the front of the room, placed the cardboard coffin on the floor, and began to speak.

“We are gathered here to celebrate the life of Campbell, a good fish,” she began.

As the ceremony played out, it occurred to me that if our fish had been more of a cerebral than a tangible friend, its death had actually brought us a theoretical tool. One that my children could use to demonstrate just how much resilience they had managed to assemble in their emotional wells after the divorce.

As she spoke I thought, a fish is just a fish, indeed, until it helps a family discover how far it has come.

When the funeral was over, my kindergartener picked up a roll of tape and wrapped the fish coffin up in several sheets of construction paper. He presented the package to me like a gift, and then he turned around and walked away.

I held the box in my hands and wondered—should we bury it in the backyard? Toss it in the garbage?

“We could get a taxidermist,” my daughter quipped.

But I knew, given everything we had already been through, that if we allowed ourselves to truly let go of what once was, we would open up an important space for something charming and new, even if we didn’t know yet what that might be.

I placed the box on the countertop and promised out loud that I would figure out where to bury it later. And that, it seemed for all of us, was that.

Samantha Shanley’s essays have appeared in a number of publications. Before becoming a full-time writer, Samantha worked with domestic abuse survivors and families in crisis in South Central Los Angeles and Boston. She lives with her three children and a trio of low-maintenance house pets near Boston, where she is working on a memoir, among other projects.

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