“Mommy, why is that fish broken?”


In 2004, my husband and I decided to invest in a saltwater aquarium…and we didn’t just go to the beach and catch some critters and throw them in a tank, we went all for it: special compact fluorescent lighting, rare types of coral, $30/piece fish, live rock, special filters, etc. It was a huge financial investment, and for a while, it looked really nice. As with most hobbies, though, once we didn’t have the cash to invest in it, it started to not look as spectacular. Fish died, coral died, live rock didn’t look as pretty…and for the past 4 or so years, we had one blue damselfish and a black sea urchin living in about a 60 gallon tank. Well, the blue damsel finally died about 2 weeks ago, I gave the sea urchin to a friend for her children’s tank, and we cleaned out the tank. Lydia asked if we could make it a turtle tank, but I heard that was really messy, so we settled on a freshwater fish tank.

Today we went to the aquarium store to look at the types of freshwater fish that are available. The store by us is really cool – they have displays with sharks and beautiful saltwater fish and large freshwater fish. Lydia loved looking at all the different types of fish, and she got really excited when she saw a light pink cichlid (she wanted a pink fish and blue fish). They also sell reptiles, birds, and a few other animals. Here are pictures from our trip.

jellyfish and butterfly fish

reef shark

female bearded dragon


On to the topic of death…. First we got to the tank with the blue damsels. Lydia said she liked those fish, and I said that was like the fish we used to have. She asked what happened to it, and I said it went away. “But where did it go?” I never actually found the dead fish when I cleaned the tank, so all I could really say was that it was gone.

Then we were looking in another portion of the store, and she saw this:

dead fish

“Mommy, why is the fish broken?” How do you answer that question when a 3-year old asks it? Do you explain life and death? Do you ignore it? Do you talk about how we all must die one day? I knew I owed her an explanation, I just didn’t know which one to give.

I explained to her that, yes, it is broken. She asked if she could fix it. She wanted to help it swim. This honestly broke my heart. I told her that in order for things to live, they have to die. She asked why, and I said to make room for new babies (Circle of Life type thing). She asked again why that specific fish died. I said maybe it was old or maybe it was sick. We talked a bit more, and I’m not sure she understood the concept at all, but there were enough distractions there that after a few minutes, she asked questions about the other fish that were alive and swimming.

When Lydia was two-years old, the question seemed to be “What’s that?” about pretty much everything. At three-years old, the question is “Why?” Young children are curious and long to understand our crazy world. I owe it to my children to give them honest, respectful responses, but I know as their knowledge and understanding increase, the ability to give them the *right* answer will grow more challenging.

Have you discussed life and death with your young children? How did you present things to them? What prompted the conversation? I’d love some feedback!


About Carrie Wells, Ed.D.

Dr. Carrie Wells is a college instructor, blogger, wife, and work-at-home mother to two children, Lydia {age 8} and Bryce {age 6}. Carrie earned her doctorate in Special Education in 2008. After becoming a mother in 2009, Carrie began blogging as Huppie Mama to share her passions for cooking, crafting, beautifying, and her family. In 2016, she rebranded as Our Potluck Family, and her husband Richard became a regular contributor.

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4 Responses to “Mommy, why is that fish broken?”

  1. Nicole says:

    I don’t know when we first had discussions about it, but since Asher was only 18 months when my mom died, I am sure it wasn’t too long after that. He knew I was sad about it at various times. I don’t remember what I said when he asked questions about death, but as with just about all questions he asks, I try to answer honestly, matter-of-fact, and at his level.

    • Carrie Wells, Ed.D. says:

      Thanks for commenting. I try to be honest with all of the tough questions – where do babies come from? why do we die? why is (insert person) crying? and whatever else we encounter on a daily basis. One interesting conversation we had recently involved Lydia asking about a child she knows with special needs. She asked if she could walk, and when I explained that she is unable to right now, she said “well, then I can teach her” which I thought was just so beautiful in its innocence. It’s so sad that as we get older, we learn less about how to change/improve the world, and more about how to just get by in the world.

  2. susanalban says:

    You did great here. I have had these conversations a lot and a short honest answer has always been best.

  3. Wendy Mastin says:

    This is so important to be able to talk to your children about what is real and what is not. Death is a a hard time for all and children need to know that.

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