Earlier this month, my wonderful father-in-law passed away. This got me thinking about the cycle of life and how confusing the concept of death can be for children who are seldom exposed to end-of-life experiences.
When I worked as a preschool teacher, a mother of one of my Pre-K students came to school with her youngest daughter. Mom’s eyes were red from crying. We walked into the hallway, out of earshot. I asked if she needed help and was told she’d recently discovered that both of her children had been diagnosed with a fatal disease. Neither of them would live beyond their teen years.
Wanting to help, I asked if there was anything that we at the school could do. Looking me straight in the eyes she said, “Just continue to care for my baby. She enjoys coming to school and loves her teachers.” All I could do was give mom a hug. I found it difficult to keep from tearing up during that day.
After speaking with the other teachers, the school’s director and the parent board, we added the topic of death to our curriculum. First we asked the students if they had any pets. The classmates contributed to a graph of the different types and numbers of pets for math. The students dictated stories about pets for language arts.
Later in the week during group time, one of the students mentioned that he had a dog but the dog died and now lived in heaven. My students, still learning how to take turns in conversations, tried to wait their turn to speak about pets that had died, then on to family members.
Preschool aged children do not see death as final. They have no sense of time and do not understand that death is irreversible. If a child is told that the pet or person is only sleeping, he will believe that the loved one will eventually wake up. By age seven, most children understand that death is final and that eventually all livings things die.
Children will have less anxiety about death if they are given the opportunity to discuss it.
My children had several pets during their childhood. When the pets died, we had a funeral for them and talked about what we loved about that particular pet. Our youngest daughter was very sad about the death of her gerbil, Brownie. After the funeral, she sat with me in the living room. “Brownie can’t come back to us, but the part of him that you loved best will live in your heart and in your memory,” I said, “so, in a way, he is with you. It was just his body that died.”
Acknowledging children’s feelings and questions, even on topics that are difficult for the adults in their lives, is very important.
Buikema, Ellen L. (2014). Parenting . . . A Work in Progress (pp. 103-107). Sun City West, AZ: Running Horse Press.
Photos from funeralsources.com and fukuoka-now.com