Facing Death – This Afternoon

Patting Ella the Fella this afternoon

Late every Sunday afternoon I go to school to take care of Ella the Fella, our beloved guinea pig.  He is old, and has felt boney over the past year.  Last Sunday I accidentally left the door of the cage open, but no worries, Ella was there, happy as a clam.

Today he was still.  Too still.  I reached in to pat Ella, and I knew he was dead. I kept nudging him, first playfully, then harder.  My head knew he was dead, but my heart didn’t want to believe it.

I was sad and cried.  Then I became angry.  That surprised me.  I even yelled. “Ella, how can you do this now?  The children have just fallen in love with you. Tomorrow night is our big family party.  Couldn’t you have waited till after the party?”

Terrible words.  I said those to a beloved pet.  When I tell the children that Ella has died, they will have a host of emotions and questions, too.  Some will cry, some will be angry.  We will talk.  Oh, how we will talk!  I will ask plenty of questions to encourage a discussion, such as, “Can Ella ever come back?”

And, Ella will be there, wrapped in his blanket.  Children will want to see him, maybe pat him, and say goodbye.

Stay tuned.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty-five 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 was a live guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I am highlighted in the seventh edition of Jim Trelease's million-copy bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
This entry was posted in behavior, Death and dying, Early Education, Expressing words and feelings, preschool, Teaching young children and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

85 Responses to Facing Death – This Afternoon

  1. I’ve been through this with the guinea pig of my Kindergarten class, but luckily she died over the summer so I escaped having to deal with it with the class. I’m sorry for your loss of Ella.

    • Jennie says:

      Hopefully this will be a teachable moment, giving children an opportunity to grieve and ask questions. We have a Memory Garden at school where we will bury Ella. Thank you, Anneli.

  2. petespringerauthor says:

    I know you will handle this situation in the most sensitive way possible, Jennie. I was looking back when I wrote about something similar a few months back, and I just reread it to see your comment. https://petespringerauthor.wordpress.com/2019/07/11/class-pets/ That was back in July, and even then, you had a sense that you might be dealing with this issue soon. So sorry about Ella the Fella, and I wish you good luck with your students this week.

    • Jennie says:

      I remember that post. I reread my comment, and now here we are at that crossroad. I will trust my instincts and handle this with whatever the children bring – tears, questions, anger, clamming up. I think helping children face death is a good thing. Thank you, Pete.

  3. It is always difficult to part with a dead creature we might have had, or a beloved toy that has “died” in some way. Children are particularly sensitive to these things because it is difficult for them to imagine something being gone “from now on.” Their little minds have not dealt with “from now on” yet. I think it is important for them to help find a nice place to bury Ella, and then to participate in her burial and perhaps writing something or drawing it as a way to say goodbye to her. Thank you as always for doing a great job, and I am sure you will handle it so that they will understand that not everything in the world lives on forever. This will help them a lot as they grow older.

  4. Oh, Jennie, how sad. I feel quite teary eyed myself. Hugs.

  5. I’m so sorry to hear about this sad event, for you and for your students! I know you’ll use it as a wonderful learning experience for them and show them it’s okay and normal to feel sad.

  6. cindy knoke says:

    You are wonderful person. I envy being a kid in your class.

  7. Ritu says:

    Oh how sad 😢

  8. beth says:

    I’m so sorry, and thank you for letting the children have their final goodbye

  9. Opher says:

    Animals become part of the family. We become so attached. When my middle son’s hamster died we had a proper funeral for him. He wrapped it in his favourite blankie. The next day he dug him up again to see if he’d come back to life.

  10. What a poignant post, Jennie, I can imagine your shock.

  11. beetleypete says:

    This reminded me of when I lost my beloved guinea-pig, Oskar. I was in my thirties, but it was still overwhelmingly sad.
    I know the kids will be in good hands with you, Jennie.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  12. I’m so sorry to hear of the death of your beloved pet. That’s always so hard.

  13. Mischenko says:

    Jennie, I hate to hear this and I’m thinking about you guys. I can’t imagine the devastation. 😥 I know the children will be very sad, but at the same time this is so important for them too. BIG Hugs ♥️

  14. Such a sad part of life ❤

  15. quiall says:

    Death is never easy to understand but it is a part of life. I have lost many pets over my life time. Turtles, fish, birds, cats, dogs, boyfriends. It helps to be able to say goodbye. The rituals help.

  16. CarolCooks2 says:

    It is always sad when a beloved pet dies and I am sure the children will be sad and show a variety of emotions but with you to guide them through that…They are lucky children, Jennie 🙂

  17. Not the greatest timing, but I know you will turn it into a loving and learning experience, Jennie. ❤

  18. srbottch says:

    Condolences to you and the kids! You’re the right person to carry them through this, Jennie!

  19. I’m glad you are there for the children. Ella the Fella is with all his friends on the other side of the bridge so he is okay. It is important now to give these kids the positive memories of Ella while he was with them. He can stay in their hearts and live forever. Thanks for sharing and I’m sorry for your loss Jennie.

  20. magarisa says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, Jennie.

  21. sjhigbee says:

    This particular moment is a big deal for children who probably haven’t encountered death before. Thank goodness they have you to talk it through with them, Jennie. Thank you for sharing:))

  22. Dan Antion says:

    I am so sorry that you have to go through this, Jennie, but I think the children will be comforted by your presence and your wisdom. You really cover all the bases with these kids. It’s no wonder they come back to visit you.

  23. dgkaye says:

    This is so sad. Yes, we do have to find creative ways to introduce children to death. Is there ever a right way? 😦

  24. I felt your sadness. Your children need this experience. I had a guinea pig that I loved. They are so sweet. It will be tough to say good bye.

  25. Always a sad and difficult time saying goodbye to our pets. 😦

  26. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, this is always sad to lose a beloved pet, and I am certain you will handle this well with your students.

  27. Elizabeth says:

    My daughter and her friends did something similar to an earlier commenter. We buried her turtle in the back yard in the fall. In the spring the kids came running in to announce that the turtle had gone to heaven. I asked how they knew. They told me they dug him up and he was gone! My grandkids just lost their hamster. Having grieved her they are on their way to a guinea pig. They hope it will live longer than the hamster. Kids seem to take these things in stride, with a whole range of emotions and matter of fact comments too.

    • Jennie says:

      Well said, Elizabeth. A guinea pig is more ‘human’ than a turtle and a hamster because s/he can be held and played with. Therefore, death can be especially difficult for children. I was surprised that the child I was most worried about seemed to take things in stride, and another child who always goes with the flow was especially upset. I have to be ready!

  28. I loved the article Jennie and thought ‘lucky kids’ to be able to learn and know about death as a natural part of life. They will understand and thank you later. I’m sorry for your loss. Trust you to turn something sad into a positive experience. Well done xx

  29. Kekee Edwards Szorcsik says:

    Jennie, I have just found your journal and have only read a few of your stories. Your posts reflect a true love of children and of learning and especially of helping children to learn.  Your approach seems so genuine and old school, learning through seeing and touching, as our generation learned, rather than just from the computer. I also share your passion for reading and read to my grandchildren every chance I get. It is through teachers like you that lives my hopes for the generations that follow. ( BTW, I too grew up in Huntington, WV and attended summer camp at Camp Dekanasida in the 60’s.)

    • Jennie says:

      Kekee!! It’s so good to hear from you. Jennie Lytton Fitzkee, here. I have fond memories of Marshall and Camp Dekanawida together. Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoy my blog posts. I have a passion for reading to children aloud and for teaching. This is my 36th year teaching preschool in Massachusetts. I hope all is well with you! 🙂

      • Kekee says:

        Amazing! As I sent my comment to you, I said to myself, “Jennie. Hmmm. For all I know it could be Jennie Lytton.” I just found Debbie Maynard and we got together in Albuquerque just two weeks ago. First time we had seen each other in over 50 years. Guess it’s been that long since I’ve seen you too. So glad to know you are well and happy. You have my email. I’d love to hear from you!

      • Jennie says:

        Kekee, this is totally amazing! You saw Debbie Maynard?! Oh, how I miss her! Do I have your email? Mine is sfitzkee@erols.com, so please send it to me again. I’m so glad we found each other.

  30. I know you will help your students to understand. You are a bridging of love Jennie!

  31. Oh, this is so sad. I know you’ll help the children through their emotions, and understanding this cycle of life. It will help you too. Hugs! xx

  32. I knew I missed something when I read today’s post. I had to hunt for this. So many are going into my spam folder and I’m trying to sort things out. I’m so sorry for your loss. Anger is a reasonable reaction to death. I did the same thing when my first husband died. I yelled at him! You understood that Ella was important to the children. Not a timely demise but that’s how life is about many things. Even when you know it’s coming, it’s still hard.

    • Jennie says:

      What a wonderful comment, Marlene. You always have important things to say. Yes, anger. I surprised myself, because I don’t get angry and yell. I appreciate that you did the same thing when your husband died. Thank you for telling me. It made me feel greatly relieved. When death comes, it’s never a good time nor easy. And, I should check my spam folder, because I feel I’m missing some posts, too. Thank you, Marlene.

  33. Norah says:

    A wonderful lesson, though sad, for the children to learn.

  34. willedare says:

    What an enormously important post + chain of comments afterwards. I need to read more recent posts to learn how this loss is rippling through your heart and through your classroom. Bless you for being present with the children while they encounter this significant phenomenon of death. I am very sorry for the loss of Ella The Fella.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Will. Children need to face death when it happens in an appropriate way, and that’s what we did, including a burial. I did write a follow up post about that. It was heartfelt. As we walk to the playground each day, we wave and say, “Hi Ella” as we pass by the Memory Garden. I will be looking to get a new baby guinea pig soon to complete the circle of life. Best to you!

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