Monday, April 8, 2013

Helping Children Deal with Death

I have to insert a caveat before we begin and say that I've never read anything about how to help children deal with death. This post is based on my general parenting philosophy applied to death. 

The other day, I came home from work and found a dead bird lying just beyond the door to the backyard. My immediate instinct was to pick it up with plastic bags, wrap it up tightly, and throw it away. 

Instead of yielding to my instinct, I realized that it would be a good opportunity to expose Henry to the cycle of life--to the naturalness of death. I figured it would be much easier to start to learn about death among animals. I decided to leave the bird exactly where it was and wait for Henry to get home.

As we drove home from school, I explained to Henry that a bird had died in our backyard. I asked him if he wanted to help me dig a hole in the backyard and bury it. I knew that he didn't fully comprehend what I was saying, but he did understand the solemn tone of my voice. 

When we got home, he kept talking about the dead bird and the hole we were going to dig. We ate snack first and talked about it some more. I explained that we don't touch dead animals with our bare hands; we can only look at them with our eyes. Then we opened the door to look at the bird. He immediately started laughing. I explained that we don't laugh when something or someone dies.

We then went just beyond our back gate (Hoss might have thought that we buried a bird in the yard for him to dig up) and started to dig a big hole. We used Henry's kid-sized tools from the Dollar Store and Montessori Services. Once the hole was big enough, we used his rake to pick up the dead bird and place it in the hole. Then we covered it back up and patted it down with our feet. I asked Henry if he wanted to find a rock to mark the spot, but it was easier for him to find a stick. 

Then we said a brief eulogy for the bird about how we hoped it had had a good life flying high in the sky (I kind of started crying). 

And that was that. Henry did mention the dead bird several times throughout the evening. 

I took the same approach as a classroom teacher. When the temperature suddenly dropped in our classroom and we accidentally killed a bunch of our fish, we stopped everything to bury them in the garden and have a little funeral service. It feels very natural to expose children to death in the natural world as it occurs.

I feel like these experiences are like layers of rock that form over the years and help build the foundation for a healthy understanding of the world. Although Henry didn't nearly understand everything about that experience, he definitely understood pieces of it. He'll carry those pieces forward and attach them to other experiences as he develops his understanding of the world and his place in it.

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kerstin said...

i'm curious about why you chose to stop his initial reaction of laughter and explain it wasn't appropriate. as laughter and tears come from the same type of release, perhaps it was his way of emotionally processing the situation? i realize in our culture this is not the "acceptable" response to death - but perhaps he was simply finding joy in the life of the bird, and in the cycle of life you are teaching him about by choosing to expose him to the dead bird?? Just a thought :)

I admire you for your approach, generally - of not avoiding it and letting Henry experience all of life - the ups and downs, laughter and tears, creating such a full set of experiences for him at his young age! bravo

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, kerstin! I absolutely think that laughter and tears come from the same place (they definitely do for me, and I often have the urge to laugh at very inappropriate times because of it). I told him that we don't laugh when things die because I want him to become acclimated to what is socially/culturally acceptable within a somber situation in our society. If he were older, I probably would have said something like, "I understand that your mind and body are telling you to laugh, but in our culture, we don't laugh when things die because it seems disrespectful." In retrospect, I could have said all of that to Henry, but I figured he was already processing a lot.

There will be lots of other times when I encourage Henry to challenge our societal/cultural norms (for example, Matt and I let him pick out "girl" shoes and underwear at Target and wear them to school, but when it comes to laughing at death, I want him to understand that laughing gives the impression of disrespect. I hope that makes sense....

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