Is Heaven in Our Backyard?


It was a cold winter day when we found Eleanor, one of our two goldfish, hovering toward the bottom of our tank. The discovery was both shocking and expected. Eleanor had been sick on and off for weeks.

That night, after the kids went to bed, Eleanor the Goldfish passed. Gingerly, we removed her from the tank, and then my husband buried her in the backyard. And together, we prepared ourselves for the following day and our children’s first experience with death.

Eleanor and James, young and healthy

Eleanor and her sidekick James were unlike ordinary goldfish. They came into our lives during COVID in the fall of 2020. My son was in preschool then, located adjacent to a big mansion owned by our town. In the back were several gardens and a fish pond, and it had become my son’s routine to visit the pond every day with my husband after pickup.

That day, he and another fish-loving classmate arrived at the pond to find a distressing sight. The town was draining the water for winter, leaving the fish to die. My husband and the other parent on the scene quickly started calling town officials, but there was nothing anyone could do. Residents had placed the fish in the pond without permission to add them. The town didn’t have the resources to save hundreds of goldfish.

This news threw our four-year-old son into a tailspin. He was frantic. Hysterical. Those fish were his pets. Visiting them every day gave him great joy. My son was so enamored with the fish that we’d just recently promised our kids they could go to the pet store and select a few goldfish of their own. At home, we had a tank all set up, the water cycling, awaiting the new arrivals we’d promised to pick out that weekend.

But now there were fish right down the street who needed us! And so, after using water bottles to transport as many fish as they could from the draining pond into a nearby fountain, my husband and son raced home soaking wet and freezing cold, both yelling the same thing.

“We need to go back! We need to bring those fish home!”

Of course, we couldn’t save them all. But we did save two. As my kids looked on, I scooped them out of the fountain using an orange beach bucket. Then, we walked home together, me holding the bucket, my oldest pushing the stroller with my one-year-old, and my son skipping down the street, overjoyed. We had our fish! Fish of our own!

That night, the big kids named them Eleanor and James. Eleanor was the bigger fish, her body long, sleek, and bright orange. James was a fancy goldfish, the tips of his fins laced with white. Eleanor was a bold fish, constantly chasing James around the tank. James sometimes hid from her in the little house we’d picked out at the pet store. We fed them spinach for the first few weeks until they got used to eating store-bought food.

And while my kids’ interest in Eleanor and James came and went, those fish became part of the family over the next three years. There wasn’t a family picture drawn that didn’t include them.

Eleanor in her quarantine tank

So when Eleanor first got sick in August, we all panicked. She wasn’t eating. Her fins were covered in white dots. A Google search suggested a disease called ich. So we ran out and bought drops. Within days, the spots cleared up, and Eleanor resumed eating. But over the following months, she continued to get sick again and again. Whenever she looked unwell, we’d research solutions and try a new treatment. We even quarantined her in a sick tank for a while to try a suggested salt remedy.

Caring for Eleanor became a job, and I grew surprisingly close to the fish with each new illness. The kids grew closer, too, leaving drawings and photos by her tank, encouraging her to get well. And now she was gone.

I kicked myself for not encouraging the kids to say goodbye before they went to bed. But as my husband reminded me, we were lucky that our kids’ first experience with death was with a fish.

“This is one of the reasons why we have pets,” he said that night. “So the kids can learn how to love and say goodbye. It’s an important lesson.”

I knew he was right. Still, it hurt the following day to watch the kids cry, especially after telling our youngest. She was not only sad but confused. “Where is Eleanor?” she asked, staring into our yard.

“Her body is in the backyard,” I’d say, pointing to the small stone marking her grave. Then I’d try to explain it using our religion, even though I wasn’t sure what it said about goldfish.

“The part that makes her Eleanor isn’t there,” I’d continue. “That part is up in heaven, with God.”

“Is heaven in our backyard?”

Every time she asked, my eyes filled with tears. “I’m afraid not. No one knows exactly where heaven is, but I’m sure Eleanor is there. She was a good fish.”

A final goodbye to a good fish

That afternoon, all three kids drew Eleanor pictures and painted rocks. That evening, we gathered around her grave and presented them, then recounted a few favorite memories and said a few prayers. Together, we mourned a special fish. Through their grief, our children were introduced to the customs of saying goodbye to those we love.

In the following weeks, we talked about Eleanor and answered our kids’ questions about death whenever they arose. And when the kids missed her, we encouraged them to pray at church.

A goldfish named Eleanor gave our family three great years. She would be missed but always with us, the painted rocks on her grave a symbol of heaven, right there in our backyard.

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Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper
Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper lives in Fairfield, CT with her husband and three children, ages 10, 7, and 4. She is the author of several novels that encourage tween and teen girls to listen to their inner voice, from saving the family fishing business in ON THE LINE, to following a passion for crafting in SALTED CARAMEL DREAMS, and exposing a friend’s hurtful social media platform in POPULATTI. She is currently working on a new children's book series and a new novel on motherhood. She also shares her own motherhood experiences on her Instagram @jnbwrite. When not writing, you can find Jackie and her family enjoying Fairfield’s beautiful coastline where they love fishing, swimming and sailing.


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