There is no easy way to say this: I am a fish murderer. Well, technically, that isn’t the complete truth. If my case went to court, I’d likely be charged with involuntary manslaughter (or fish slaughter, as the case may be.) The fact is, up until a few weeks ago, we were fostering six large and beautiful Koi fish, and now there is only one lone survivor: Champ. I still feel awful about it.

Our little Champ didn’t have a name before the demise of his five fish companions. He was only known as “the little guy” because he was the smallest of the six fish we inherited with our rental house. I named him Champ because he was the only one to survive the fish armageddon. I felt it was the least we could do.

For the record, we had no idea that fish came with our rental house here in Utah, and although we weren’t mad about it, I did feel a bit intimidated by the setup. We don’t know anything about fish or (perhaps more importantly) about the outdoor enclosure the fish called home. It didn’t help that the house owner didn’t know about fish either. (She inherited them from the previous owner.) Since no fish manual was included in the rental agreement, we were left to just get on with it. Oh well, we mused: How hard can it be?

As it turns out, it’s more difficult than it looks.

When we moved into our house, a neighbor told us that Koi of this size were worth a lot of money, so Jeff (only half-jokingly) suggested we sell them to fund our vacation this year. I was horrified. Just because Lolly—the house owner before the current owner—moved out of state without her fish didn’t mean they were ours to sell. Sheesh! Besides, our grandson loved them, and so did I. (Well, as much as you can love fish.) Looking back, perhaps selling them would have been the kind thing to do. At least they would still be happily swimming around in someone else’s pond, not lying lifeless in a plastic bag waiting for trash pick up. I would also not have to live with the memory of five big fish floating fins up in the pond.


a fish that is swimming in some waterJeff was not home when I discovered the fish carnage in the outdoor tank. Seeing these beautiful fish lifelessly floating in the water was all the more gut-wrenching because I had noticed them uncharacteristically swimming on the water’s surface the evening before. They seemed to be gasping for food, so I threw in a handful of fish pellets. (“What can’t be fixed by a good meal?” I always say.) It turns out that the poor things may have been gasping for air. Argh. That is the worst.
After doing a quick count of the dead bodies, I realized that all but one fish was accounted for. I finally found the little one alive and still swimming! I was equally thrilled and panicked. What should I do? Surely, it was not a good idea to leave him in the water that (likely) contributed to the death of the others, so I ran into the house and grabbed a sieve and BBQ tongs. (No, I did not grill the dead fish.) The sieve was to scoop out Champ and put him in a bucket with water. I used the tongs to extract the large, dead fish from the water. It was awful.
Once Champ was out of the death pond, I called PetSmart to ask for advice. The one employee who knew something about fish told me that putting Champ in tap water was not good because it is chlorinated. Argh. I couldn’t take much more of this stress.
Since I couldn’t face putting Champ back in the death pond, I just prayed over him and left him in the bucket. I reasoned that if God could raise Jesus from the dead, he certainly could keep Champ alive in the bucket. It turns out I was right👇🏻. The fish pond is now clean, and Champ is back home. However, I can’t help but wonder if he is missing the others…



Before I get too far down a rabbit hole with this (true) fish tale, I want to pause and get to the point of this post: What do you do when you make a mistake? I’ve had a lot of time to consider this issue as I’ve processed the (arguably) preventable death of five living creatures. Although I’m a work in progress when it comes to dealing with messing up, I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to best handle the stress of making mistakes in life. (Believe me, I’ve had lots of practice.) Here are a few suggestions to consider:


-Admit that you made a mistake. I know this probably seems obvious to most people, but because I spent many years of my life battling shame, I found it very hard to deal with making mistakes. I thought that confessing weakness or error would make me feel even worse about myself. That is just not true. Bringing our shame, sin, or brokenness into the light through confession is key to being released into freedom. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Even though not every mistake we make is sinful, the principle of confession (telling someone) is powerful for being set free from guilt and shame.


Let me share an example: When my little grandson was only a few weeks old, he fell to the floor in my care. As I stood up from the chair, the U-shaped pillow he was lying on slipped, and he fell on the floor. He likely had the wind knocked out of him because although he was very upset, he wasn’t making any noise. (Think, silent scream😩.) I have no words to describe the horror I felt. At that moment, my guilt and shame equaled the fear I felt. Even though it soon became apparent that Finn would be okay, guilt and shame clung to me like a second skin. Over and over, I kept hearing, “How could you?” in my head.


I was alone at that moment because Finn’s parents and Jeff were upstairs. Since no one witnessed what happened, shame took the opportunity to speak: “No one has to know.”


I have to tell you, that was quite the temptation. I was absolutely mortified that I had hurt my little grandson, and I didn’t want anyone to know what I did. However, I also knew that if I kept quiet, the guilt and shame would eventually cripple me. I willed myself to tell Jeff what happened, and as I did so, I felt a shift in my spirit. His attunement and comfort acted like oil on my wound. Confession brought healing (James 5:16). Remember, it’s important to talk about what happened.


-Ask God and others for forgiveness (if necessary), but also forgive yourself. Brushing off the mistake is not the same as intentionally forgiving yourself. Unforgiven mistakes only get buried in your soul to fester like an undiagnosed cancer. I know this from experience.


When I began my healing journey, I became aware of the many grudges I held against myself. It’s been said that not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. The same is true of unforgiveness toward yourself; it is harmful! If you’re unsure whether you have things that you need to forgive yourself for, ask God about it. He will bring things to mind that you need to release. He may also highlight any “identity lies” that come up when mistakes happen. In other words, you may have come to believe that the mistake somehow represents who you are (a loser, for example) rather than something that you did. I am still discovering unprocessed mistakes that I need to forgive myself for. I suspect you might have some, too.


-Process your emotions (even if others tell you your mistake was “no big deal.”) For me, the dead fish episode was kind of a big deal. I feel guilty that the fish may have been struggling the night before they died, and I just didn’t pick up on it. I also feel guilty that I didn’t take the time to learn more about the fish in our care. And I feel sad that Champ is now swimming in the pond alone. (Top Tip: It’s important that you name your emotions to help you process them.)


A couple of days after the fish died, a neighbor invited me to see her gorgeous backyard. I had no idea that she had a fish pond back there. As I watched the dozens of tiny fish swimming to and fro, I told Janet what happened to our fish. Suddenly I was flooded with sadness, and began to cry. Oh my. I didn’t see that coming.

“You really are upset about those fish, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I am.”

I plan to continue processing these emotions as long as necessary, and I encourage you to do the same. There isn’t a time limit on “getting over” what happened.


-Be curious about what else might be happening with you as you process your mistake. Although I’m still in the early stages of exploring what the fish incident triggered in me, I recognize some of the emotions I’m feeling could be connected to death (having lost a sister to cancer and watching parents struggling in old age), loss of relationships (I’ve had quite a few of those in the past couple of years) and having a long-standing habit of assuming responsibility for everything bad that happens. The mantra, “If only I tried harder…done better…been less selfish…this wouldn’t have happened,” still creeps into my thought life sometimes. The fish incident has motivated me to get curious about all of the above. I encourage you to get curious about what is happening with you, too.


-Figure out lessons learned. Perhaps this should go without saying, but don’t waste a good mistake by not learning from it. Jeff is the one who has taken it upon himself to learn more about fish enclosures, algae, water filters, etc., so we can take good care of Champ moving forward. As already mentioned, I’m using this experience to dig a bit deeper and tune into areas of unprocessed pain in my own life. I’ve also been thinking a lot more about what it means to care for the environment and God’s creation. All that from a couple of dead fish…Don’t waste a good mistake!


*I recognize that some of you may be dealing with much bigger mistakes than having fish die in your care. If you need help processing your guilt, shame, and pain, please reach out. If you mention this article, you will receive 20% off my counseling services.

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