Speaking to Children about the Death of a Classmate’s Mother
(excerpt from “The Cycle of Life: From Birth to Death and Beyond”)
I have spent the past two days speaking to groups of children, four to six at a time, in various classrooms about their friend Esther’s mother Celeste, the Brownie leader, who is in Hospice care. A couple of parents have requested that I write about these conversations and share them with you. When I spoke with the children, we usually began with how very sick or hurt a person can be and how complete the recovery can be. Treatments and medications can help a person get well again. The children told stories about people they have known who were very sick or injured and how they have recovered.
We spoke of the people who get worse for a long time and finally get better after years of medication and treatment. The children shared stories. We spoke of the people who get worse and worse and no medication or treatment helps them. They continue getting worse and they don’t get better. The children told of people they’ve known who died.
We spoke of the mystery of life and death and how the two are one. There is no life without death. Just as we open our arms to life, we open our arms to death. The children speak of all the animals and people they know who have died. They speak of the little babies, children, teenagers, parents and grandparents. We talk about the usual order of things, the model we expect—that animals and people die when they are very old and ready to die. We grieve and we miss them, but it is an expected and accepted grieving and missing.
We spoke of the babies, children, teenagers and parents who die — how few of them die and how unexpected and unacceptable we feel it is. We emphasized how unusual it is for a mom or dad to die before the children are grown up. I tell the children that a child’s worst fear is often that their parents will die, but that actually their parents will probably live to be eighty years old. Very old people who are sick and feeble may come to long for death. Those who love them may welcome their death as a kind relief. I emphasize that it is unusual for parents to die before their children are grown up.
The children talk about sickness, accidents and diseases. I follow their lead and straighten out their misinformation. I repeat how wondrous, strange and beautiful, how sorrowful and lovely, and how heartbreaking and joyous life is. The children spoke of their ideas of what comes after death. We spoke of Heaven and the angels, of the Good Earth and giving our bodies back to it. We spoke of returning to Live Again and of Life Everlasting and of Becoming All with Nature, both body and spirit.
The children all had their own ideas and ways of thinking and feeling about sickness and death. We brought up many different religions and spiritual paths. We spoke of God, the Life Force and Nature. One little boy waited until the other four children in the group had left. Then, he told me had no religion. I smiled a big, broad smile at him and said a big Ahaa! He looked at me harder, with large and earnest eyes, and said, really, his family had no religion. I told him that in that case, it meant that “all of life” was his religion. He smiled and smiled. He said Yes! I told him he would love all of life and be kind and loving to all of life—that he would be the best person he could be because he loved life so much. That would be his religion.
Children spoke of seeing a grandparent in bed at night and then finding his bed empty in the morning, because he had died and his body had been taken away. Such a mystery! They spoke of burials and cremations. We spoke of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, and accidents and recoveries. And death. We spoke of how long and hard grief can be and how we take joy right in the middle of it. Sometimes we have to open our hearts wider even when we hurt to let a bit of joy come in to the sorrow. We spoke of how sorrow goes away, but not altogether, and how it comes back suddenly. We spoke of how we call joy back, take it in and fill ourselves up with it.
We spoke of how hard it is to see a person becoming weak and thin. Watching a healthy body change can be upsetting to us. A couple of years ago, some of our families and children experienced a father dying over a three-month period. They said it was hard to watch him change so that they could no longer see in his body the person they had known. And it was hard when he could no longer recognize them and began calling them by other names. A child described how it haunted her for a long time.
The girls in the Brownie troop remember how recently they met at Esther’s house and her mother Celeste, their Brownie leader, had made delicious treats for them to eat and prepared interesting activities for them to do. In their practical and life-affirming way, the children were immediately concerned about who will be their Brownie leader.
One girl spoke of how strange it will be to go to Esther’s house and not see her mother. How can that be possible? Life and death are unfathomable mysteries. The children asked if they would ever see Celeste again. They were sad to think they might never see her again. We all agreed that within themselves, they carry a part of her spirit and some believe that they will see her in Heaven and she will be a part of all of Life and her body will be part of the Earth. We will all remember her and speak of her. The children can tell of good times they had with her. The children can make cards. Maybe the children can attend her memorial.
One girl said it is mostly the mother who cares for you and feeds you and listens when you are upset. How can a child grow up without her mother, she wondered? The children said over and over with fear and anger, this is not fair, not fair, not fair. They said it is okay for a sick and suffering person to die but not fair for a child not to have her mother. We search our souls for that fierce and passionate strength that we wish we never needed to find. And we find it. And we grow wiser than we ever wished we would.
But Esther has had such a loving and joyful mother for so long that she is strong and full of joy herself. She will be able to suffer the loss of her mother’s presence on earth yet keep her mother’s loving presence within her. It will be very hard but Esther will be fine.
Each person has a different way of grieving and we commit to respecting each person’s way. Your children will probably want to talk about this with you, their friends and their teachers; and they should feel free to do so. At the same time, it is important that each child respect Esther’s way of dealing with her grief and to follow her lead when discussing it with or near her. Handmade cards are a good way for children to express their sorrow and share their love for Esther while respecting Esther’s right to privacy with her grief. Here at school Esther chooses to say her mother is getting better. After her mother’s death, we will watch and wait to follow Esther’s lead.
Esther has many close friends whose mothers and fathers have helped out with rides to school and outings. These mothers and fathers are ready to do whatever is needed to help Esther and her father. Esther has spent her days at school and after in the company of friends doing fun things.
Celeste’s dream was to move to a house close to school before she died. Her husband and family are working to make that dream come true. Perhaps they will be moving by the end of this month. Esther’s father, Jon, will keep Esther in school next year so she can be close to her friends and their parents.
We knew you would want to know what’s going on and how we are speaking to the children about this so you can support them.
With sorrow and affection, and looking toward joy,
And so, as in all things, the School Culture is pervasive, cohesive, and integrated in philosophy and practice.