All Because of a Dragonfly… Talking Death With Children

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Our Memory Garden at school is a raised bed of beauty; flowers, sculptures, American flags, and a collection of painted rocks, all to mark classroom pets and loved ones who have died over the years. The garden sits quietly as children run and play alongside. It is welcoming, and children who visit inevitably ask questions.

Additionally, there is a flat paving stone with a carved dragonfly in remembrance of Taylor, a little boy in our school who died some years ago. Taylor adored dragonflies. Yesterday I noticed the garden needed weeding, and sat on the low stone wall to take care of Taylor’s dragonfly. Emma came over to ask what I was doing. She wanted to help me weed. That was the beginning of a remarkable series of events about dying.

Yes – dying – the word that scares teachers and parents. The “D” word. Something they hope they’ll never have to talk about until their child is older. I wasn’t scared.

Emma noticed the dragonfly and we weeded together to make things beautiful again. She was quiet, and this work seemed to be soothing to her. Well, that’s what I thought at first. Yet, it was far more than the weeding that was soothing Emma which I would soon discover. Ever-cheerful Scarlet bounced over with her signature big smile and curiosity. It was Scarlet’s first real visit to the garden.

“What’s that statue?”
“It’s a baby deer.. It’s for someone who died long ago.”
“Died? Is he under the deer?”
“Oh, no. People would have to be buried in a real cemetery.”
Long pause…
“Scarlet, the deer helps us to remember the person. See how beautiful his eyes are? We can remember the good. All statues and painted rocks represent pets and people who have died”, I said waving my arm across the garden. “Look here. What are those letters on the green rock?”
“They spell P-E-E-P”.
“Peep was our Guinea pig before Ella.”
“Emma, do you remember Peep?”

Emma nodded her head yes. She was there to love Peep when he was alive, and she was there when he died. Emma had not talked this entire conversation. She had not even made eye contact with either of us.  I told the children how Peep was buried deep under the rock in a pink lunchbox. I told them the story of how he had died at Audrey’s house on Christmas Eve, and how we had buried him in the snowy weather.

Then we talked about Peep and all the things he did when he was alive. We looked at the blue rock for Goldie the fish, and the rock for Sparky, and for many other pets. I told them stories of our first guinea pig. We weeded and talked. Finally Emma said, “My Nana died yesterday. She was ninety-five.” Relief.  She said it.  We talked some more, but now it was Emma who did the talking, all about her Nana.

Scarlett jumped right in, “My sister Ruby died.”
My silence must have deafening. “Do you want to tell us about it?”
“Yup. She was bigger than me. She died in Mom’s belly before I was born. We have her birthday every year.”

Elena, the inquisitive and thoughtful one, walked right over to Scarlet. “What happened? Your sister died?” And, Scarlett told the whole story over again, including the birthday part. Emma asked me if all the animals in the Memory Garden celebrated birthdays. I told her I didn’t know, but wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing. Everyone nodded and looked at me, hoping I could make something happen, or perhaps make things ‘right’ for the animals.

“Let’s sing Happy Birthday to everyone. What do you think”. Squeals of “yes”, hand-clapping, and jumping up and down told me that singing the song was indeed a good idea. We all held hands, including other children who had gathered at the Memory Garden, and belted out Happy Birthday, twice. It felt good. The children were satisfied.

Our Memory Garden is an open door for children to wonder about the circle of life and ask questions.  Don’t we all need that?  Don’t we need a remembrance, a garden to weed and take care of, and others who can listen and understand?

The next evening a friend and fellow teacher came over for dinner.  As we walked outside she noticed my dragonfly stepping stone in my garden.  We stopped.  This was a moment for her, beautiful memories after a tragedy.  When we walked out to sit by the pool, a rare ‘dragonfly show’ suddenly appeared.  Imagine that!

blue-dragonfly

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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42 Responses to All Because of a Dragonfly… Talking Death With Children

  1. This is such an important part of growing up and it sounds as if you handled it beautifully, Jennie.

  2. Tanya Cliff says:

    Ah, Jennie, what a beautiful way to tackle this difficult life lesson with these children. It was inspiring..

  3. Beautiful post. Children are wiser than we know about many things – and need help finding their way around others. Death is a difficult concept for any of us – we heal as we help them heal.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

  4. Norah says:

    What better way to discuss the subject of death than with children’s own stories and hearts. I love the sound of your garden and the memory stones. Dragonflies are a wonder symbol of life’s strength, and fragility. The dragonfly in your photo is beautiful. I have a book I used to read with the children. It is called “Lifetimes”. It is old now but still beautiful. It talks about the different lengths of lifetimes that living things experience. Having pets in the classroom is a great introduction to that concept.
    Did I understand correctly that you have a dragonfly paving stone at school, and another at home?

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Nora. It is such a tough topic, but if one pays close attention to the child and takes their lead (emergent curriculum), the conversation becomes very natural. The Memory Garden is wonderful because it allows those moments to happen. I DO have a dragonfly stone in my yard, too. And the fact that it became a source of comfort for the teacher who experienced a tragic death was quite special. I will look for the book “Lifetimes”!

  5. spearfruit says:

    A beautiful post Jennie, thank you for sharing – I am glad I read it this morning. Happy day my friend! 🙂

  6. Sometimes us adults are nudged into a better understanding/acceptance of death by dragonfly gardens. (which you alluded to in your ending statements)
    😉

  7. What a lovely garden to remind children that memories never die and even more touching since they all contribute to the care and maintenance of it! I loved reading your words. Thank you.

  8. This is a wonderful post. I worked for a long time as a grief counselor for children. They are incredibly resilient, but more so when we make space for them to ask questions and talk about death. Somehow adults think that by not discussing death or using the “D” word, children won’t think about it, feel it, or wonder about it. So silly really. Understanding pacing and creating safety is important and you did it beautifully. Having an activity (in this case weeding) works perfectly. Some very wise soul came up with the idea of the small graveyard at the school. Well done!

  9. frenchc1955 says:

    This is a wonderful piece! Thank you so much for posting this.

  10. The memory garden sounds wonderful. It’s so good the children feel comfortable enough with you to share their deepest thoughts. They may not have the right opportunities at home to discuss important subjects, and even if they do, their families may not all be as thoughtful in their reactions, as you have been.

  11. swamiyesudas says:

    My Dear Jenny, You are one of the Very Best Teachers I have come across. Your Children are Blessed to have You. …Teaching should be like This! Kudos, Regards and Love. 🙂

  12. swamiyesudas says:

    Reblogged this on lovehappinessandpeace and commented:
    *******

    Teaching should be like This!

    *******

  13. reocochran says:

    The memory garden is an excellent choice to allow grief to be expressed. The way you listen, pause and let the children talk is great, Jennie. I like that the parents continue to celebrate the child which would have been the bigger sister. I miscarried two babies and I had first Christmas tree ornaments for each baby. My children liked taking turns to put on the tree. I heard a nice older country song by a band called the Greens. “There’s a Rocking Chair in Heaven” just helped us all to realize we may see our deceased children or siblings. ❤

    • jlfatgcs says:

      What a deeply personal story, Robin. Thank you! Like Scarlet, your children have benefited by how you remember your babies. Tree ornaments are wonderful! I was surprised at how Scarlet told her story, but I shouldn’t have been. Children are natural, and curious. That makes the Memory Garden even more important. Thank you so much, Robin!

  14. wieckling says:

    Thanks for sharing your heartfelt words. I work in Australia in Early Childhood Education too. I love working with the young. I’ve recently returned to work after losing my 20 year old son last year in Oct. Talking about death with the children can be very rewarding as they speak from the heart and have better understandings about it than we think. We read the water bugs story at the celebration of my son’s life and dragonflies have become very special to me. I write a blog too with my words honouring Jacob as I write about love, memories and grief.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you for sharing your story with me! You are doing many wonderful things, for others and children and for the memory of your son. Please know it makes a difference. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my post. Dragonflies are remarkable. -Jennie-

  15. YES – Jennie, this is remarkable. It is so important to have a place to share grief. My spiritual mentor (John-Roger) wrote a book on loving, and I was just reading a quote on how listening is one of the most profound forms of loving. ❤
    Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes I think what I'm doing with the forgiving blog is to listen to myself with love.
    Blessings,
    Debbie

  16. mukhamani says:

    Death is a part of life and it helps when we talk about it. Thank you so much for sharing.

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