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How to Cope with the Loss of Your Pet Fish: It’s Not “Just a Fish”

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By Lindsey Stanton

Dead goldfish

Saying goodbye is never easy. It’s not what we want to do, but sometimes, we discover a fish has passed on or must be euthanized to end its suffering. The pain is so real, so intense—that aching knife-in-the-gut feeling when you think about it.

Now, Some people find it hard to believe that you can experience any grief over the loss of a fish. But the truth is, fish aren’t toys or decorations. They are pets. We fish owners bond with them, grow attached to them, and when they die, it can profoundly affect us.

Like all pets, they become like part of our family to us. People who think otherwise might not understand this. They might say things that only pour salt on the wound.

“Fish are short-lived anyway.”

“Just get another one.”

“There’ll be more like it where it came from.”

“It’s only a fish.”

It can be hard to hear those things while we are suffering, but remember, they didn’t have the amazing experience of loving a fish like you did or the sorrow of losing one. If they did, they wouldn’t say that, so don’t be too upset about it.

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How to Cope With the Pain of Pet Fish Loss

colorful cichlids in aquarium
Image Credit: Arunee Rodloy, Shutterstock

A word of advice: It can be tempting to try to smother your emotions so you don’t feel the pain. But bottling it up will only affect you negatively and will come out sooner or later in ways you might not realize.

Don’t be afraid to go through the grieving process.  In fact, you can actively go through it.  Embrace it as part of the journey to healing.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Let the tears run freely. Crying is a very good way to release all those feelings inside. Don’t be embarrassed or feel guilty for having a good cry.
  • If possible, find a sympathetic loved one or friend to cry or talk with. Sometimes, we just need to tell people what we’re going through. If that person likes fish, even better.
  • You might feel angry or frustrated. That is normal. Maybe let yourself vent a bit by doing something to let off some steam, like exercise.
  • Write down your thoughts in a diary. Sometimes, we don’t want to talk to other people because they don’t “get it.”
  • If you don’t have someone to talk with, join a goldfish support group. These people have most likely dealt with fish loss and have gone through exactly what you are going through. And they won’t be as likely to give you a hard time about your feelings.
  • If you still have fish or other pets, spend some time with them and think about being grateful you still have them in your life. It can help lift your spirits.
  • Bury your fish in a special way. Honor their influence on your life; don’t just throw them in the trash or flush them in the toilet. Find a special burial site, such as in a garden or below a tree, and commemorate it with flowers or a marker. You can see more ideas for honoring the passing of your deceased fish here in a special way.

“I’ll never get another fish again; they will only die!” You might want to protect yourself from ever having to experience this again. People have this response to grief in relationships, too. They think they can never let themselves get too “wrapped up” in someone else in case they let them down. My friend, please don’t give up.

Losing a pet teaches us two important and valuable life lessons.

  1. Don’t go through life afraid to love for fear of the pain of loss, or you will never know the joy of true companionship and intimate relationships.
  2. On the other extreme, don’t put so much of yourself into someone else that you would be completely dysfunctional without them.

Pain isn’t always pleasant. But it means you loved well.

Here is a little note you can write to bury with your fish:

“Name_of_Your_fish_here, I loved you. I loved you enough to give you the best home I could, to take good care of you while you were mine as best as I could, to enjoy every moment spent with you. I hope you knew that during your time with me. And when it was time to say goodbye, I loved you enough to go through the sorrow of having to let go – it hurts because I loved you so much, and because I wanted to see you live for many more years to come. You were my friend, you brought a smile to my face whenever I was lonely or sad. You cheered me up after a long day. You captured my heart from the moment I saw you, and I never did grow tired of watching you swim through the water. Your kisses on my fingers made me laugh. You had a personality all your own; you were special, so special to me, and I think you loved me too. And I will always miss you. It hurts to think of you right now because I miss you so much. Though the hurt will go away in time, I will never forget you and the difference you made in my life.”

goldfish and snails
Image Credit: Madhourse, Shutterstock

You Will Feel Better

It might not seem like it now, but in time, you will heal. Maybe it’s hard to think about your pet right now. The memories only make tears well up in your eyes. Memories can be bitter initially. It might take a few weeks or months, but the memories will be sweeter once the pain is gone.

Right now, you are probably thinking about the last part of your fish’s life, and those can be sad memories, especially if you were dealing with an illness. But take heart: You will be able to remember pleasant things about your fish instead of painful ones.

So, keep their photos or videos, and don’t give away everything you see that reminds you of them. Later, you can return to them without the same heartache and even enjoy them. You’ll remember the good times of their life in time.

[Edit: Even now, after 3 years of writing this, I still feel a little sadness mixed with sweetness when I think of the fish I lost during this time. It actually took me a full year to feel better after grieving for my fish. Everyone is different, though. Having other fish has really helped. Since I’ve grown fonder of them, sometimes I find myself worried about losing them because I know how hard it will be, and I know there will come a day when that will happen, but it has helped to teach me that life is a precious moment, so short and special, and to appreciate each day I have with them and those around me.] 

Dealing With Any Guilt

There are various things that cause a goldfish to die – some you probably didn’t even know about. If you lose your fish due to a mistake on your part, you may find the feelings of guilt to be very strong, mingled with grief, which only makes everything worse.

People make mistakes. We don’t do our research soon enough. We act too soon or too late. We get lazy or busy. Whatever the reason, it’s good to recognize when you could have done something better but don’t beat yourself up about it.

You may have done all that you could, and it was time, no matter what. There are situations like that where it really wasn’t your fault. Either way, you loved your fish and wouldn’t have wanted anything bad to happen to them.

And one thing about fish is they don’t harbor any bitter feelings.

platy and others in tank
Image Credit: Joan Carles Juarez, Shutterstock

What About Getting Another Fish?

It can be comforting to think of getting another goldfish or other fish. After all, it’s always exciting to get another pet, but give it enough time. It can be tempting to get a new fish as quickly as possible to fill the void, but give yourself the space to fully heal before getting another pet.

Getting a new pet too soon can make it hard to love them like you should. Some people try hard to find a fish exactly like the one they lost. They are trying to replace that fish because they want their old fish back so badly. However, as hard as it sounds, you can’t bring that fish back.

Even if you find one that looks just like it, their personality is different, and you might feel resentful of the new fish, placing unrealistic expectations on it. No two fish are ever the same. If you decide to get a new fish too soon, you could end up disappointed and unhappy.

It’s important to appreciate your new fish for who they really are.

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How About You?

If you feel like talking about things with others, don’t forget to join our support group. Has this article helped encourage you? Let me know what you think.

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Feature Image Credit: toangsorry, Shutterstock

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