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What Desiree the fish taught me about grief and loss.

When I was 8 years old I was given a large fish tank for my birthday.  It was a hefty 180 litre tank on a pine stand with a bright iridescent lamp.  It had all the accoutrement of a very excited first time fish owner, a whirring filter, a garish pink and purple plastic castle and a piece of driftwood surrounded by a forest of hornwort and Java Fern plants. Once the tank was filled and the PH meticulously balanced I went to the Glenferrie Rd Aquarium and excitedly picked five prized goldfish and three tiny tiger fish for my tank.  One of the goldfish I named Desiree, the largest of the fish with a striking iridescent orange body and translucent fins.

Besides the daily feeding and water testing, new Pet ownership also came with a laborious fortnightly deep clean.  This process involved the removal of all the objects and filter  for a wipe down and the syphoning of 60% of the water into a bucket, which unsurprisingly smelt, and if I wasn’t quick enough tasted like stagnant pond juice.  

My first fish died within the first year. I remember watching it bob upside down at the surface of the water while the other fish merely swam by seemingly unfazed.  I cried from the visual shock of its lifeless and soulless body, but then after a while I scooped it up and ceremoniously buried the fish in the backyard. I made my reluctant siblings and parents witness the funeral which I officiated with a moment of silence and a W.H auden poem ‘stop all the clocks’.  As the years passed the fish continued to cycle through my tank, sometimes only lasting a few months and sometimes a few years.  The burials became more informal, to the point when some were merely dropped into the toilet with a chosen word of gratitude and a final flush. But these losses felt manageable, predictable, part of the course of pet ownership.  

When I was twelve a virus struck my fish and they all died suddenly except Desiree who looked extremely unwell gasping for air at the surface.   I was devastated, I started crying and screaming as I watched their inverted bodies at the top of the tank.  When I had capacity I rang the emergency vet with my emergency, my real and very big loss.  The vet told me there was nothing that could be done as the last fish would inevitably die within the day from the virus, but just in case to put Desiree in a bucket of clean water in the remote chance she could survive.    I woke through the night to check on her but by morning she was upside down like the others, her iridescent belly facing my bedroom roof like a full moon.  I buried Desiree with the other goldfish in the mounting pet cemetery on the side of my house where the lemon tree lurked.  The now empty fish tank sat in the corner,  a mausoleum to my loss as I grappled with the enormity of multiple shock losses alongside sadness, guilt and anger at how I let a virus permeate the entire ecosystem.  

This was my first experience of grief, it was all encompassing and so very sad. It made my tummy hurt and my brain feel foggy. It also felt something like fear. I took a few days off school and  decided I couldn’t be in the same room as the tank.  So I moved my bed into the lounge room and renamed my bedroom ‘the death room’.  I wouldn’t go into the death room except to quickly change my school uniform in the morning and glance at the empty tank and then bolt straight out. This went on for weeks if not a full calendar month.  My parents simply allowed me the time and space to grapple with my loss and talk about it incessantly to anyone who would listen.  My fish had all died and now there was none.

At some point a month or two later I re-entered the death room and sat with the empty tank, the grief didn’t have the same intensity as it had a month prior, it was still there but almost less intrusive.  I felt ok to be in the room, so that day I went shopping with my mum and bought a very expensive collectable crystal fish to place in the tank to commemorate Desiree and the others.   I then picked up my bucked and hose and filled the tank.  Once the tank was fully restored to its former glory, the light and filter switched on.  I went back to Glenferrie road to pick out my five new goldfish and three new tiger fish for my tank and move back into my room. 

As it happens in life my losses continued and became steadily bigger in magnitude.  But somehow the death of Desiree and the other fish resourced my grief for these later losses.  I knew the very real sensation in my body and I was able to give my grief space, time and the importance it very much needed.

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