This year in my class, we had a lot of death going on. More than one grandparent passed away, a beloved family dog died, several of our own classroom fish perished, and while studying Jamaica and reggae music, the subject of what happened to Bob Marley came up more than once.
On an annual basis, parents come to me and ask how to handle the issue of death with their children. Many of them are in the midst of grief themselves if a relative has died, and others are baffled by their child’s newfound interest in death. Sometimes it seems out the blue, but it is very common for kids at 4 or 5 years old to become almost obsessively curious about death.
This year, a mom called me in the middle of the day to tell me that the family dog was dying unexpectedly and when her child came home from school, it would be dead. What should she do? she asked me. What should she tell him? Should she let him see the pet to say goodbye? How could she explain this to him?
There are no easy answers when explaining death to kids and it is a personal decision depending on religious beliefs, family dynamics, and the child’s own temperament. It’s helpful to take the child’s lead by seeing what kinds of questions they have before doling out too much information. But it’s complicated regardless.
We often talk about the life cycle in the classroom in the simple context of a seed turning into a flower and then dying. Unfortunately the real world is often more complicated and sometimes kids have to face tragedy and loss in unexpected circumstances. Dogs can get sick and medicine doesn’t help. Accidents can occur. Bob Marley decided not to have treatment for cancer in his toe.
In the classroom this year, one little boy talked frequently about the recent death of his grandfather. The little boy did not seem disturbed when he talked about him but was rather enthralled by the whole experience; almost as if it was something so unbelievable that it was like reading a fairy tale.
“He died and then we buried him in the ground,” he said, wide-eyed. The other kids in the class listened attentively.
“Why?” One asked, looking a little horrified. “Why did they bury him in the ground?”
“It’s a cemetery,” another chimed in. “With big rocks around with names on them. Dead people’s names.”
Looking around the room, it occurred to me that about half the kids had never even heard the word cemetery, never mind contemplated the morbidity of the bodies under those rocks; while the other half had some understanding of the rituals around death.
“My dog died,” the little boy who lost his pet said. “And he looked like this.” The little boy closed his eyes, stuck his tongue out, and hung his head to one side. The class roared with laughter.
When he composed himself from his own laughter, he protested: “It’s not funny! It’s sad. My mom cried.”
A little boy who had been listening said: “My mom’s mom died when she was little. Her name was Mary Anne.” I felt a pang.
Several other kids added their own list of long lost relatives to the list of the dead.
“Is your mom still alive?” (a question I get asked frequently by my class) a little girl asked me. The class waited intently for my answer.
“She is not anymore,” I responded. “But she was really great and we had a lot of fun together.”
“Why did she die?” a little boy asked.
“She had a bad sickness that medicine couldn’t help,” I said.
“But why?” a couple of kids said in unison?
They appeared worried for me. But more importantly, they appeared worried for themselves.
It occurred to me that what kids need most around this whole death issue is reassurance that they are not going to be abandoned. That the primary people in their lives (usually the parents), aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Processing death is complicated at any age and the grief of losing a loved one (pet or person) is one of life’s greatest trials. We just can’t answer the question “why?” But it is important nonetheless for kids to understand that life does not go on forever. It inevitably occurs in their own world.
Developmentally kids see death in an egocentric way (maybe we all do to some degree). They fundamentally want to make sure they are going to be okay. The rest of it is just a mystery.