Talking Death and Dying with Children – Part 3

In Part 2, I talked about the dreaded “D” words – death and dying – that teachers and parents fear.  I introduced a gentle and friendly book, City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, that may be helpful in starting a dialogue with children.  Ask.  Listen.  Answer.  Talk.  And read aloud.

Part 3
Death is really the grand finale to the circle of life.  It encompasses all we experience; friendship, sadness, love, fear, joy… it is a fitting end to the memories of living.  One book that gives the greatest tribute to life, death, and everything in between is Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.  It is my #1 read-aloud every school year.

When I finish reading our first chapter book of the school year, Charlotte’s Web, children are engrossed in this book because it is a story about the heart – and my most important job is educating the heart.  As such, they begin to understand the depth of true feelings.  Charlotte the spider died.  That opens the door for questions, and some of those questions are in the form of silence.  That’s when I put down the book and talk with the children, and listen.

Death isn’t an easy topic with children.  Addressing death and dying with young children, and with their families, is typically not part of a teacher’s curriculum, or even part of the books and stories they read.  When Charlotte died, here is what I wrote home to the children’s families:

Yesterday we finished our first chapter book of the year, Charlotte’s Web. It is a wonderful story, and your children loved it. Chapter reading is one of the favorite times of the day because children are captivated by words alone. Those words make the pictures in their heads, and those words make their minds think and their hearts feel. That is the power of reading aloud.

“Can’t you just read more?” is what children ask when we stop reading. That means they are listening and comprehending. Chapter reading is a bridge from understanding a book to feeling a book. That’s a big step for children. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig makes his best friend with Charlotte the spider, yet he suffers through sadness and loneliness. Charlotte the spider dies at the end, as all spiders do. These facts are part of the story, yet are vastly overshadowed by the storyline itself. That is why a good book imparts a tremendous opportunity for learning.

Death and dying happens, and when it can be introduced to children in this way, it can better give them tools of understanding. It can also be a soft step to real events in a child’s life. When a grandparent dies, or even when a classroom pet dies, perhaps Charlotte’s Web gave a child understanding and compassion. Did we talk about Charlotte when we read the book? Of course we did; not only her death, but her children (all five hundred and fourteen), and the words she wrote in her web. And, we will continue to talk. Often children bring up questions months later, and we listen and answer.

My co-teacher and I have a wonderful dialogue when we finish a book. I become very sad and a little teary. She asks, “What’s the matter, Jennie?” I reply, “The book is over. I don’t like that! It was so good. I’m really very sad.” She perks up and says, “But we get to read another new chapter book.” I reply, “Really? When?” She says in a big voice, “Tomorrow!”

That’s our circle of chapter reading, much like the circle of life.

When I first started teaching, our school’s director always stressed the importance of teaching families.  She understood that in order to educate the child you also need to guide parents and families.  She was emphatic about sending newsletters home, and adding one paragraph that would teach something to families.  She was right.  She also felt that educating children and families about death and dying was important.  Gulp!  For many teachers that was an uncomfortable topic to address.

A few years later our beloved classroom guinea pig, Elliott, died unexpectedly.  I was devastated.  First I knew I had to tell the children, then I knew I had to tell their families.  That was my diving board, and I put my fingers to the keyboard and wrote.  I talked about letting children ask questions and giving them an opportunity to say goodbye.  I talked about being honest.  I talked about how perhaps experiencing the death of a pet can help make the death of a loved one down the road a little easier.  The words flowed.

Over the years there have been many classroom pets who have died, and many stories and books about death.  I listen.  I ask questions.  Children always have a voice.  Chapter reading really is much like the circle of life.  I am educating the heart.


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.
This entry was posted in Book Review, books, chapter reading, Death and dying, E.B. White, Early Education, Expressing words and feelings, Love, reading aloud, reading aloud, Teaching young children, wonder and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to Talking Death and Dying with Children – Part 3

  1. beetleypete says:

    I love how you involve parents. Despite having some wonderful teachers at school, I always found that they considered parents to be at best an ‘irritation’. Glad to see times changing.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      Well, I think parents have changed in wanting to do more with their child. They just don’t know how. It’s teachers who have realized that the only way to effectively teach is to include (and teach) parents as well. I wish all teachers reached out to parents. Best to you, Pete.

  2. ksbeth says:

    you are so right, that as teachers we work with the whole family. this book is a classic for dealing with love and death and offers many teachable opportunities. i just read a wonderful bio of e.b. white and his writing motivations.

  3. Ritu says:

    And I love how you are doing it ❤️

  4. GP Cox says:

    You are always guaranteed new and different questions when you talk to children!! But then again, look who I’m saying this to! haha

  5. Opher says:

    Brilliant Jennie. Just the right way.

  6. Annika Perry says:

    Jennie, you are a teacher, but yet so much more! Beautiful reflections about death and dying, about open communication with our young people. I love the thought that ‘ Chapter reading really is much like the circle of life.’ This will stay with me. As for Charlotte’s Web, I read this recently for the first time since so many recommended … it is a most special memorable book!

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful words, Annika. I, too, love the idea that chapter reading is much like the circle of life. It is! And, it’s the most important thing I do with children. I’m so glad you read Charlotte’s Web!

  7. Mischenko says:

    Jennie, this is beautiful. The world needs more teachers like you. ❤ This is one of our favorite books and movies. It really does bring the questions though. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Dan Antion says:

    I would guess that involving/educating parents also helps to diffuse some knew-jerk reactions after hearing these things from their children, after the fact. One think I’ve learned, it’s hard work being a good teacher.

    • Jennie says:

      It definitely helps to diffuse the reactions. Getting parents on board (really, just educating parents) is huge. Yes, it is hard work, and very rewarding. How many people can say they make a difference? Pretty important. Thanks, Dan.

  9. You’re wonderful, Jennie. ❤ Cheers to you for your honesty and gentle compassion. Exactly what children need to allay fears.

  10. It is wonderful how you are teaching young children about this, which is often not spoken of.. And I was an adult before I read Charlotte Web .. But the importance of reading out loud and allowing discussion and letting children express their feelings and so educating them not to be fearful..

    I think the losing of pets while very sad for all concerned helps young children understand about the cycles of birth and death etc..
    Educating Parents and keeping them in the loop and informed too is something schools now do more and more.. Much so now than in my own school days.. Too many years ago .. 🙂

    Sending love and Blessings Jennie.. Again I admire all you do with your school family my friend ❤

  11. Excellent approach. Thanks for sharing, Jennie.

  12. tidalscribe says:

    A good series, thanks. I always feel sorry for teachers and school heads when the absolute worst happens and a child from their school has been murdered. It has to be faced because it will be in the news and everywhere.

  13. Thank you so much, Jennie. I wonder if we as adults would do better with those we know dying. I think that for those who never hear the word death mentioned in a story or question time, death can be really difficult. I know when I was growing up, no one ever spoke of death – not parents or teachers or pastors or priests of churches. So when it did happen, and we were already adults, it seemed as though we were babies in a way, not really knowing what to do or say and being haunted by its happening in our lives for many years afterward. Peace and many blessings, Anne

    • Jennie says:

      You are exactly right, Anne. And you know personally the effects of silencing any discussion. I hope you have an opportunity to read some of these books to children. Thank you, and best to you.

  14. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    Here is part 3 of Jennie’s excellent series on talking about death and dying with children.

  15. A really great work, Jennie! How wonderful the possibility involving the parents, and making them a part of the learning process. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and have a beautiful week. Michael

  16. You do indeed have a whole degree in hearts! Now if we could only clone you….

  17. How sweet, the story on Charlotte’s web made many children tearful. Lion King us another heartfelt story. Great writings that journey on death and dying. help young minds to better understand how fragile and short life really is.

  18. dolphinwrite says:

    Once, a nephew went to one of our relative’s funerals, and was troubled by this. At our home, he looked troubled, and I guessed something was amiss. So, I asked him what he was thinking. He said that he didn’t want to die. Then, I realized what was troubling him, so I thought for a moment. He liked me, we had been in the middle of a game, and I didn’t think as his age, that I should go into a whole discussion about life and death. So, I said to him, “You don’t have to think about that right now.” Then, I paused, seeing how he took that, and then I said, “Want to continue our game?” He said, “Okay.” Years later, when I asked if he remembered the talk, he told me he didn’t. He’s also a happy-go-lucky adult with a zest for life. I’m sure he’s talked more about these things with his parents.

  19. srbottch says:

    Over the past 36 years, we’ve experienced the death of three rescue dogs. It’s tough but I found that writing about them was therapeutic. Experiencing death as an observer or family member is tough.

  20. I love that children are being exposed to the concept of death at an early age. We were not and I don’t think shielding us was helpful. Do you ever have parents that are not comfortable allowing you to broach this subject with their child? We do need to clone you, you know. 😉

    • Jennie says:

      I haven’t had a parent tell me they are uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the way I write to them, how I say it. I imagine what the children tell their parents is more matter of fact and positive, not tears and worry. It really does help to talk about death at a young age. And thank you for the cloning recommendation. 😊

  21. abbiosbiston says:

    Such a lovely post. Little O will be off to school next year and I am really hoping he has a teacher as lovely as you!

  22. dolphinwrite says:

    It’s a topic that requires thoughtfulness and awareness of the parents/ adults. We might think they get it, but find the concept isn’t as we think, or they may have considered something very different. I remember when a family had to put down an animal. The children were devastated, wondering why they wouldn’t do everything possible. The question: would you put one of us down so easily? The sharing from very young onwards takes understanding and sensitivity.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes, it takes a great deal of sensitivity, understanding, thoughtfulness and awareness. Opening a dialogue and truly listening to the child is a great first step. There are many views and thoughts, so be open minded with children as they ask questions.

      • dolphinwrite says:

        Yes, and sometimes little or nothing need be said. We don’t always have to think our way through. Sometimes, a parent with wisdom knows when to ignore, divert, share, or wait for the proper time to discuss without saying too much. And sometimes, more needs to be shared.

      • Jennie says:

        Yes!! Well said, Ryan. Read the child, and go with the flow. That can mean anything from silence to diversion to discussion.

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