Children Talking Death and Dying… It’s Good

Recently on the playground I watched children happily engaged in play.  The important part to them was someone dying.  It may sound grim, but it was really a happy game of imaginary play.  The characters were a mom and a dad, a baby, and a dog.

First,  the Mom died.  The other characters rushed around to help, calling out loud, “Oh, no.  She died.”  Then the game switched characters, and the dog died.  Interestingly, the baby never died.

I took it all in, because I know that play is work, and also how children sort out things in their minds.  It’s natural that death and dying is simply a part of what children learn and talk about.

Here is a conversation that occurred at the playdough table:

Lincoln:  Auntie Terry got dead.  She is in church.

Alex:  Who got her dead?

Lincoln:  Nobody.  She just is.  She fell and got dead.

Lucca:  Awww!  That’s so sad.  I feel bad for her.

What a terrific conversation!  It’s natural and full of curiosity.  All too often parents want to hush-hush any discussion or questions about death.  They’re scared.  They decide that avoidance is the best thing to do.  They think perhaps shoving it under the rug until their child is older is the way to go.

It’s not.

Answering questions with a three or four-year-old is delightful.  They are just learning to put the world in order.  They are as curious about a wooly bear on the playground as they are about death and dying.  Simple questions need simple answers.  No more, no less.

When our hermit crab died, here is the conversation that happened in the classroom, and what I said to parents:

Last Wednesday one of our hermit crabs died.  In spite of the many conversations about death and dying that naturally occur with a classroom pet, it is still a moment of wonder when a pet dies.  Some children were surprised, some were quiet, some asked many questions, and some appeared to take it in stride.

A child:  Jennie, the hermit crab isn’t moving!

Jennie:  Let’s take a look.  Join me on the floor and we’ll open the cage.

(Fifteen silent, wondering children gathered to see what had happened.)

A child:  He still isn’t moving.

(Jennie put the hermit crab on her flat, open palm to show the children.)

Jennie:  The hermit crab has died.

A child:  Why didn’t he go into another shell?

A child:  Will he come alive and find a new shell to live in?

A child:  No, you can’t come alive after you die.

Jennie:  That’s right.

A child:  Will he go to heaven?

A child:  Yeah, he’ll be with Ray and Baby Smokey in heaven.

Jennie:  That would be wonderful!  We’ll go to the Memory Garden and bury the hermit crab.  You can come along if you wish.

(On a drizzly, chilly morning, we went to the Memory Garden on the playground and buried the hermit crab.)

Jennie:  Should we sing a song?

A child:  The ABC song!

A child:  Twinkle, Twinkle!

(We sang the songs, said good-bye, and headed back indoors to play.)

When a child experiences death with a pet, that is sometimes helpful when there is death in the family, such as a grandparent.  There is a small degree of familiarity, and questions have already been asked and answered.  The Aqua Room feels that including children in the wonder of life, as well as death, is a learning experience for both the mind and the heart.

Including children in the wonder of life, as well as death.  Absolutely!

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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48 Responses to Children Talking Death and Dying… It’s Good

  1. It’s so wonderful that they can be open in your space about such hard topics. I went to the funeral of an 8 year old when I was around 12. No one would discuss anything about it with me. I tend to be very pragmatic about but so many are so afraid of it. You are a wonder to allow this openness in your classroom.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Marlene. You know how it feels to be shunned on taboo topics. Such a shame that fear can drive the boat. Your kind words are so appreciated! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the post. We have a 5 & 8 year old, and dying death and killing has entered their vocabulary. We’re not happy about killing and die! but I’ll loosen up about death and dying a bit now- thanks again. Chad

    • Jennie says:

      That’d be good, Chad. You don’t have to open up the subject. Just be there to answer their questions. And, you don’t always need long and fancy answers. Many thanks! Best to you.

  3. Hi Jennie, you are right. Children need to be exposed to everything in life including death so that it doesn’t become forbidden mental territory that they can’t deal with later in life. Super post.

  4. Ritu says:

    I am so glad to be able to offer a place where the children are able to broach such topics without that parental fear of ‘Are we talking about things that are too grown up?’ to our pupils.
    You handled it really well Jennie.I’m glad your kids have such a safe space to talk things through.
    Death, is, unfortunately, a part of life, and we have to learn how to deal with it…

  5. Sensitively handled… There’s a balance, isn’t there, between helping kids discover and learn the things they need to know, and getting the timing right. But I wonder whether the reason many of us probably don’t handle the fundamental business of life/death very well is because of our own fears.

    • Jennie says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Fear can certainly be a driving force. And yes, there is a balance. We don’t have to answer a child’s questions with sophisticated, grown-up answers. I think if we could all be better listeners, too. Many thanks!

  6. Gee Jen says:

    I love these interactions and the environment you create Jennie. I have a question you are under no obligation to respond to. My 7 year old daughter often talks about her brother who was stillborn when she was 18mths and sadly my response it to try and brush it away, I think for me it’s about not making a big deal about it. I love that she knows about him and remembers him frequently as part of our family but I find it hard when she talks about missing him, i guess I feel she doesn’t truly understand the situation. She has experience with death with great grandparents dying in recent years. Any advice?

    • Jennie says:

      I have had this happen many times before at school. We have a Memory Garden which can sometimes be a trigger for questions. The key is to be a good listener and let her talk. You can tell her that you remember, too. That may sound silly, but it is enormously comforting to a child. Maybe tell her a story of that “time”, such as it was a bright and windy day. Ask her if she would like to sing a song or draw a picture. In these ways, you are not making a big deal, and also you’re not sweeping it under a rug. One time a child at school who is the older sibling of a stillborn baby (yes, same scenario) wanted to sing “Happy Birthday”. So, we did! Does this help? And, thank you.

      • Gee Jen says:

        It does help thank you. Of course these comments always seem to come up when I feel rushed but I am going to try and make a point next time of stopping and reflecting with her, I really appreciate your suggestions.

        I do have another question though :p Do you think it’s appropriate for her to talk about with others, ie taking a symbolic photo/keepsake for show and tell, I guess my concern is that it is attention seeking but perhaps my attitude needs to be more that it is normal and doesn’t need to be a hush hush topic in public?

        It is his birthday on the 21st Dec and I’m sure she won’t let us forget, she is such a caring soul.

      • Jennie says:

        She needs to talk, that’s all. One family at school in the identical situation acknowledged the birthday with a cake at dinner and singing Happy Birthday. Worked for them, and for the child. I know this is awkward for you, but not for her. If she takes in the photo for show and tell, make sure you have a chat with the teacher beforehand. Maybe she needs another babydoll for Christmas, too. That I’d do, even if she already has plenty. Hope this helps a bit.

      • Gee Jen says:

        Thank you 💙💙

      • Jennie says:

        You are welcome! 🙂

  7. beetleypete says:

    Teaching that life and death is a natural process that comes to every living thing is important.
    When I was a child, we buried dead pets like cage birds and goldfish. There was always a little box to put them in, and a discussion that they would never be coming back. I grew up not fearing death, and just being aware it would come ‘one day’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      Well said, Pete. That is how it should be. With the very young, talking about a dead flower can be equally important. I’m glad you were able to bury your pets and “say goodbyes”. Best to you.

  8. Dan Antion says:

    I think the most important part is “…no more, no less.” That’s where most of these conversations go off the rails. Children can understand, but only so much. It’s appropriate and healthy to let their understanding grow as they do. Great lesson for us all, Jennie.

  9. It is a great lesson, Jennie. That reminded about questions kids will ask later about sex. Answer simply and truthfully and don’t enlarge on your answer unless there are follow-up questions. I agree, Jennie, that a child’s questions need to be answered truthfully no matter what the topic.

  10. ortensia72 says:

    Death is a natural part of life and kids must be make aware of it.my daughters first encounter with death was when our dog died.He was there before them so he was their big brother,part of family .the6 never been in the house without him.
    despite my atrocious pain I managed to explain death as a natural evolution of life.you live hearth and go in an other dimension.they were ok and the scenario presented helped a lot when both their grandfather died.They were and are aware death happens but it doesn’t erase your loved ones.

  11. I love how you handle every situation with such grace, Jennie. As an ex-children’s grief counselor, I couldn’t give you one tidbit of advice even if you asked for it. The children in your class are learning wonderful and powerful lessons that will serve them throughout their lives. ❤

    • Jennie says:

      I’d forgotten you had been a children’s grief counselor. Thank you for validating that what I do is the right thing. I only have my gut and my heart and a gazillion years of teaching to steer me the right way. So again, thank you!

  12. Beautiful and touching post! Kids are lucky to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. At home, it may not be as much of a welcoming place.

  13. Opher says:

    It’s so important to process death. It’s a real taboo.

  14. I think this is such an important subject.. I found explaining death to my own young children when a rabbit of theirs passed away a great way of approaching death and grief. It is sad that so many people think we should not broach the subject..
    A wonderful post, thank you for sharing Jennie xx ❤

  15. Darlene says:

    Well handled. Children are capable of dealing with these things much better than adults realize. My 6-year-old son was devasted when his dog died but later when he lost a couple of teenage friends, he was able to deal with it.

    • Jennie says:

      Thanks, Darlene. Yes, children are very resilient and can deal with more than we often give them credit for. Dealing with an animal’s death really does help down the road, just like your son. Best to you!

  16. Annika Perry says:

    What love and tenderness shown by your young students and yourself. It can be easy to be overprotective as a parent and stop these discussions – sounds like you provide the perfect environment. I had to smile at the idea of the hermit crab going to another shell – that could lean onto quite a metaphysical discussion! When my son’s favourite tropical fish (Pin) died when he was little (my son!) we had a little ceremony in the garden, the fish placed in a matchbox and then buried. Emotional but soothing…I just couldn’t garden in that area for a couple of years. A lovely moving post, Jennie.

  17. Tina Frisco says:

    Wonderful post. Jennie. Young children are much more tolerant and accepting than adults. Until they’re conditioned to fear what they don’t understand, they retain wisdom from the other side. Their comments blow me away at times ❤

  18. reocochran says:

    I am so glad you talk openly with your students and this is wonderful, Jennie. Matter of fact answers really do make sense and help them to figure out many aspects on life.

  19. Wise words. It’s fascinating how much of our first ways of thinking can be determined by the words and manner of our childhood peers. Children discussing death together may feel more comfortable and natural then a family discussion since some families are better at bringing up difficult subjects than others.

  20. dgkaye says:

    Loved this Jennie. It’s so true how little ones interpret death and form opinion from what and how they are told. 🙂

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