How a Tiny Betta Fish Helped Me Swim Through a World of Grief

I’m not sure how she came into our life. We were probably visiting our local pet supply store to buy cat food when my 5-year-old son led me to the small plastic cups stacked precariously on top of one another. Little fish floated in these containers, some faded with torn fins, some vibrant and alert. My son asked me if he could have one. “I don’t see why not,” my husband shrugged. We purchased multi-colored gravel and a small gallon fishbowl, water conditioner, a tiny net, and fish food, plus a few plastic plants.

Driving home, we explained to my son that having a pet was a big responsibility. That we would help him care for his fish but he had to learn how to keep her bowl clean and how to feed her. I suggest names that my own fish had when I was his age, ‘Bubbles, Goldie, Fishy.. what do you want to name her?” I asked.

Holding his fish carefully in his hands as we drove home he spoke from the backseat. “Her name is Celery.”

Betta fish can have thousands of color combinations.<p>bobbyphotos/Shutterstock</p>
Betta fish can have thousands of color combinations.


Celery was probably a typical pet store Betta fish. She was blue with pink tinged-fins, not as iridescent or full-finned as some of her plastic tanked neighbors, but healthy looking enough. We set her up in her new bowl on top of my son’s dresser and instructed him that we would help him feed her.

He adored this fish, rushed home after kindergarten to greet her, eagerly helped me place tiny food flakes in her bowl, watched as I carefully transferred her to a container of water in order to clean her tank.

Until he didn’t.

A lot of parents know how this goes. You get your kid the hamster or hermit crab or fish they absolutely have to have -- until that little creature is replaced with a passion for LEGO or Pokémon cards or hours spent trying to beat a level in Super Mario. He wasn’t as enchanted with Celery as he was when she first came home. Our cat ignored her, overall.

She was my fish now.

And something happened to her, as weeks grew into months, as she celebrated her first, then second birthday. Her colors became more vibrant as she grew bigger. I felt like she recognized me, swimming in circles as I approached her bowl to feed her, watching me as I folded clothes into dressers, and rearranged action figures on bookshelves.

I’ll admit it. I talked to her as I did the drudgery of housework, when I cleaned her tank.

And then my father got sick.

A trip to the emergency room when he awoke with severe stomach pain while visiting my sister discovered cancer that had spread through most of his body and his brain. We dove the nine hours in the dead of winter to see him. There was no time to arrange a pet sitter, so our cat rode in his carrier and I held Celery on my lap.

Some Betta fish can jump out of their bowls. <p>thanyathornS/Shutterstock</p>
Some Betta fish can jump out of their bowls.


An open guest room door resulted in either one of my sister’s cats fishing Celery from her bowl or Celery jumping out of the water. I discovered her gasping on the carpet. I gently picked her up and placed her back in her home. I found myself terrified she wouldn’t be okay, double checking the closing of doors and peering at her hourly. But she pulled through.

I’m sure you realize how this story ends. My dad died, and as horrible as that was, it’s like this for anyone with someone they love dying from cancer. There's a gut-wrenching sadness but relief there, too. It's the kind of suffering you can’t even begin to fathom someone you love enduring even for a moment.

And it was in those moments, I found myself watching this little fish, not sure how I would be okay, me and her, just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl. Year after year.

But it wasn’t years. We weren’t lucky enough to have one of those rare Bettas that live close to eight years, I think she died a year after my dad. I went into my son’s room and there she was, floating on the surface of the water. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

We buried her in the backyard, as you do, my son crying as we placed the shoebox in the ground, both my husband and I eulogizing this little fish, a cross made from twigs marking her grave.

People talk about the intense bonds they have with their dogs and cats, how they love them as much as they have loved any human, that they couldn’t imagine life without them. But what about these ‘starter pets,' the hamsters, the gerbils, the pet store Betta fish? Is it weird that her death struck me so hard? We’ve had many animals since then, and I loved them all. But I really loved Celery, that tiny fish who had been through so much, who helped me through so much.

They say when cats and dogs die they cross the rainbow bridge, to a beautiful field where they can run and play all day, where they can nap on grass warmed by the sun, and they never feel pain.

I sometimes close my eyes and see our Celery in a rainbow ocean, free from the confines of her tiny glass bowl, swimming against gentle currents and exploring vast coral reefs. She never feels pain either.

I like to think my dad watches her, too.

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