​The children are talking about…death

How one class turned tragedy into a positive opportunity to learn about death as part of life.

When a local second-grade classroom was touched by the death of a school community member, their class was infiltrated with chatter about funerals, death, and questions of heaven. Stories emerged of other family, friends and pets that had died.  After several days, their teacher recognized that their questions would not go away unanswered. She observed the desire for these children to share their stories and experiences related to death and dying.

Memories and emotions had been triggered and an opportunity for open discussion about death as part of life was presented. Working with her school social worker, the teacher contacted Western Reserve Grief Services for help. It was determined that a classroom presentation might benefit her students. Our School Liaison spent the next three Mondays with this insightful group of young students.

The first week, a simple but direct discussion about death was held, using  Krasny and Brown’s, When Dinosaurs Die, as a guide. The students were attentive and eager to share their ideas, questions and experiences. Some students became sad and quiet. Some even cried. Tears, fears and anger were validated as one child after another listed off loved ones who had died during their short lifetimes. It became apparent that this particular group of students were brimming with emotions and had much more to share. The teacher requested that the School Liaison return the following week.

Common reactions to grief and general education about feelings were the topic of the second week. Children were given opportunities to identify and express their feelings and responses to death. They seemed relieved to find out that their classmates and friends shared many of the same feelings. Each student was given the chance to draw a picture or write a story about a special person who had died in their lives.

Unfortunately, even in the second grade, there was not one child who couldn’t complete the task. Students worked diligently with crayons, markers, stickers and other art supplies to create memories of grandmothers, brothers, pets, cousins, friends and parents. Most were proud to show off their work and share memories of their lost loved ones. With the help of their teacher, students then decided that they would bind all of their work together to make a classroom “memory book” as a way to continue to encourage sharing and healing within their room. Their teacher was open and supportive and requested that the School Liaison return for a final session.

For this session, students learned about coping skills and brainstormed about how to care for themselves and each other during sad times. Students gave examples of how they can be good friends to themselves and to each other. Suggestions included “give a hug, share a toy, tell a funny joke, take some quiet space and talk to your teacher.” Students then wrote out their ideas on strips of construction paper and created a paper chain link over 50 pieces long! They hung their “chain of support” outside their class in the hallway so that what they had learned could be shared with the whole school. It was a wonderful way to wrap up the three weeks, as the students now had a visual and concrete “link” to one another, much as death links us all. They identified all of the ways they can cope with loss and reiterated that they can and will survive, despite difficult times. Their teacher was grateful for the expertise of the School Liaison and for the opportunity that it allowed her to acknowledge and support the grief of her students.