As adults we don’t like to think about death. We understand its finality and so are reluctant to talk about it, especially with children. However, it is worth thinking about how we handle the topic, so as this is National Bereavement Week, here are some of my thoughts.
Recently, I heard a dad explaining death to his little girl and it took me right back to the day I found out that my dad had died when I was aged 4 and half. In the 1970s people felt it was better to protect children by not keeping them informed of what was happening and the day before my dad died, I was taken to my aunt’s house. A neighbour collected me and dropped me home the day after he was buried. On arriving home my uncle, who had come from England for the funeral, told me, in a very matter of fact manner, that my father was dead. I remember running up to my parents’ bedroom, as I knew he was sick. But, of course, he wasn’t there. I ran to the two other bedrooms and he wasn’t there either. Then, I found my mother in the kitchen and she was crying. She confirmed that he was gone, and I never even got the chance to say goodbye.
I tell this story partly to remind you just how far we have come. When parents die in 2019 children are very much part of the funeral party and if I was four and half now the chances are that in those six weeks between when my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour and when he died I would be told just how sick he was. He would probably be encouraged to make a memory box for me with letters for significant moments in my life – my debs, my wedding, when I had my first child. I might be encouraged to make a memory book of keepsakes like photos of me and my dad, drawings, ticket stubs from places we had been together. For me that would have included lots of match memorabilia. My father was an avid Tipperary fan and though I don’t remember it he took me to local matches and always brought a treat home for me from away matches. And very importantly, time and space would have been made for us to say a proper goodbye.
Death is part of life and there are lots of ways we can help children prepare for when it happens. For some children it will be the death of a pet, for some the loss of a grandparent and for others it will be the death of a sibling or a parent. Death and the experience of bereavement can have a huge impact on young children’s lives and to help them deal with the loss they need lots of support. Today there are lots of bereavement support groups out there to support families. Early learning and care settings have a vital role too to play in ensuring that children understand the issues surrounding death as well as making sure that any child who is bereaved is provided with the support they need. This is really important for their well-being (Aistear, The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework , 2009).
Yet even today death is something we don’t feel comfortable discussing. This reluctance can deprive children of the chance to grapple with the concept of death. It’s important to use everyday occurrences to explain death to children. Reading stories about death and having discussions about what happens is really useful for helping children learn more about life and death. Have you got these kinds of books available in your setting? Also looking at nature, the seasons and the life cycle helps. Why not plan a trip to the local graveyard? Or are there memorials in your local area? If you live anywhere near Powerscourt be sure to visit the pet cemetery and in the town where I live there is a World War 1 memorial, a Titanic memorial, a Blind Piper statue and a plaque to remember Crimean Bob – a veteran troop horse, so lots to spark the children’s interest. If you see a dead rabbit on the road outside the setting, talk about it. And remember, if the goldfish dies don’t hide the fact and replace it with another one (as did one setting I visited). Instead discuss mourning customs and rituals and organise a funeral/memorial service.
Children who are bereaved need to tell their story in a variety of ways – telling, drawing, through play and it’s important that their story is heard, seen and read by those that are important to them. I just wish I had gotten the opportunity to tell my story earlier. Losing a loved one in the early years can have a profound impact on children’s lives. We survive it, but it does change you and what your life might have been like if that person hadn’t died.
So, think about the children in your setting who have been bereaved and also spend a couple of minutes thinking about yourself and those loved ones you have lost.
Mary Daly lives in Tipperary and has worked in the area of early childhood in Ireland in a number of different capacities over the past 18 years. Mary has a BA in Early Childhood Studies from University College Cork and in 2002 she completed a Ph. D. which focused on the emotional, social, moral and spiritual development of the young child. In 2004 she published a book based on her Ph. D. She has presented and published nationally and internationally. For the last decade Mary has worked with the NCCA and is a member of ECI’s Scientific Committee.
Some books you might like to add to your collection to support children to think and talk about death;
Duck death and the tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
Always and Forever by Alan Durant
Badger’s parting gift by Susan Varley
Tess’s Tree by Jess Brallier
The invisible string by Patrice Karst
I’ll always love you by Hans Wilhelm
The fall of Freddie the leaf by Leo Buscalgia
Dear Grandma Bunny by Dick Bruna