Question of the Day: “What to do when your fish is going to die?”

Jonah always has one beta in a small, but properly filtered, fish tank on his bureau. If you know about betas, you know that they are beautiful fish. Unfortunately, you can only have one of them because male betas will fight each other to the death. You can put them in in a tank with other fish, but they prefer to stay by themselves, and other fish just really dirty up a tank, so we have always just had 10-15 gallon tanks with one beta. To me it is symbolic of Jonah’s own relationship with the world.


Betas live a few years in a clean, captive environment, and Jonah’s latest (Adam) has outlived most, but now he is starting to die. He’s a beautiful all black beta with a small fleck of white on his back, and he really has grown on me. But we’ve had enough fish through the years to recognize what a fish death looks like. Adam was also the kind of beta who could hear me coming, and he would playfully swim out to the side of the tank. Logic tells me he is doing so because he wants me to feed him, but a small part of me thinks he is just excited to see me.

The last few days when I walk in Jonah’s room, Adam is hiding in the plastic reef. The first morning he was somewhat responsive. It took a few minutes of tapping on the tank but he eventually swam out to see me, but then he quickly returned to the reef. During these first few mornings, his swimming was quick and jaunty, indicating that he is having problems swimming in the water. I asked Jonah about it, and in the beginning he would tell me Adam was eating. But about a week later, Adam is always in the reef when I walk in, and when he does swim out, he ends up close to the filter. I try and prepare Jonah for the end.

Today, Adam was just laying on the ground. Barely moving.

“I haven’t seen him in awhile, Mom,” Jonah says from the darkness of his bed. I look into the tank, carefully lit by the green LED light from above. Adam is barely moving, but I can see he is still breathing.

“I see him, buddy. He’s on the floor of the tank,” I answer, unable to look away. I feel so bad that he is dying alone down there without anyone or anything. I suddenly realize how much I am going to miss him. It seems silly. He’s a fish. He’s a tiny fish at that. He’s not a huge pond koi. He’s not even as expressive and exuberant as a gold fish. “But I think it’s important for you to get ready.”

He turns over and covers his face with his arm. I am not sure if he is crying.


“This is the worst day,” he says.

“It’s not the worst day, but it might be a sad one, J,” I respond. “It’s okay.” Though I don’t feel very okay. I explain that he should probably say a few words to Adam before he goes to school. There is a good chance he will not be alive when we return. I start turning over in my mind if I should contact his teacher or not. I decide against it. “Love you, buddy,” I say as I kiss a partially covered, but wet cheek.

“Love you, too, Mum,” he says tearfully in his fake English accent he uses when he feels terrible.

I closed his door and walked towards the steps feeling much sadder than I would like on this cold January morning.

Love and Light.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on