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Talking about death to young children

(49 Posts)
absentgrandma Wed 24-Sep-14 22:28:50

My DD has just emailed to tell me DGS has been sobbing in his bedroom, unable to sleep because his teacher told him today that everybody dies. He keeps saying 'But if you die Mummy I'll be on my own'. He's an only child so he obviously feels very vulnerable.

I'm almost incandescent... he's 5 years old angry. What flamin' planet is the woman on? Surely the subject of death/dying is something which a small child's parents need to deal with on their own. They know their own children and when the time comes for the subject to be aired (on the death of a dearly loved grandparent perhaps) each parent will decide how they are going to talk about it in a gentle way withinn a home environment. Not in a damned classroom!

I know my DD, she'll go to school tomorrow, guns blazing.. as I would have done at her age, but being older I'm somewhat more sensible now. From past experience I know that a teacher can make a child's life hell on earth if an angry mum dares to challenge them. He's only had this teacher for 3 weeks... he's got the rest of the year to go.

I don't really know how to advise her, but I really do think this teacher has gone too far. What's going to be next... safe sex for six year-olds?

janeainsworth Wed 24-Sep-14 22:38:09

I don't think 5 is too young for children to be told about death. After all many of them have experienced the death of a grandparent by that stage, and some even a parent.

My DGD (aged nearly 4) has to walk through a churchyard on the way to nursery. One day she asked DD what the gravestones were for. DD told her that's where people's bodies were buried after they had died.

Very sensible in my view.

DGD's next question : 'So when is Grandma going to die, Mummy?'

Ana Wed 24-Sep-14 22:49:48

I agree, janeainsworth, with your opinion that 5 is not too young for children to learn that everyone does indeed die, eventually.

It's difficult for teachers as they can't anticipate how every child will react, however carefully they phrase the message.

GillT57 Wed 24-Sep-14 22:56:16

Everyone has to get to know about death, some cope with it better than others. My daughter got very clingy and worried about me after she walked through the Churchyard on the way to Church for a school visit. On the way a boy in her class pointed out the grave of his Father. My DD was shocked to the core that someone's parent could die, and shortly afterwards when she was staying with my parents overnight she got very upset convinced I would die. The mother of the little boy whose Father's grave was seen had obviously been able to deal with the tragedy of losing his Father so young, and his Mother and grandparents had made a very good job indeed of helping him to deal with it. My daughter just needed constant reassurance that I wouldn't die until I was really really ancient ( 'do you mean really old, like about 40 Mummy?) shock and eventually settled down. The point is, children, like all of us, react differently, and it is up to us to not over react and possibly make things worse by promising that we wont die.

Anya Wed 24-Sep-14 23:00:28

My grandson's other grandmother died this morning. She was Grandma and I am Nana. They were only told tonight after school and the youngest is only 4. So this is something they are going to have to deal with.

They already have experience of death as their great grandmother died early this year.

It's a shame your little GS has first met this concept through his teacher, but I do hood your DD won't go in with 'guns blazing' but instead take the opportunity to sit down and talk thus through with her son, so he gets a better understanding and is less afraid for his family.

merlotgran Wed 24-Sep-14 23:04:38

How many of us can remember how old we were when we understood about death? It's not a subject that should be taught it's something that should be gently introduced as part and parcel of growing up and then won't come as a shock if it's mentioned in school.

Parents have to find their own way around this tricky subject but I think children should have an understanding before they start school even if animals like family pets are used as an example.

gillybob Wed 24-Sep-14 23:05:48

I agree with Jane too. Only just the other night I walked my three through the graveyard (not far from where I live) which is an excellent shortcut to the church whe DGD2 attends Rainbows. I have been having these kinds of questions for quite some time and the questions seem to get better and better (or more gory depending how you look at it). On Monday evening I had;

Are there still hearts in those graves?
If the wind knocked a gravestone over would I see bones?
If that dog (there were dog walkers at the time) wee wees on the grave can the dead body feel the wee?
What does beloved mean?

I could go on and on..... I have it almost every week.

Also, my grandchildren keep asking my grandma when she will die. She is very old after all and it doesn't seem phase either her or them.

I can understand a child being anxious to think that they may lose a parent but I don't think the teacher did anything wrong absentgrandma We are all going to die after all. Perhaps your DD should have just explained sensitively that most people live to be quite old etc. smile

durhamjen Wed 24-Sep-14 23:06:39

My youngest granddaughter was four when her grandad died. She came to the funeral along with her brother and cousins, and met lots of people who talked to her about what they remembered of her grandfather.
As she used to see him most days, his death could not be hidden from her. She knows that everybody dies some day. She accepts it better than her brother who is five years older than she is. He says he never wants to die, because he does not want to be burnt or buried. I tell him he might change his mind when he's a hundred.
A teacher has to tell children this as factually as they can when the subject arises, and leave the nuances to the parents. In this village all the schools are religious denominations. I am sure all the children know that everybody dies some time. It's then up to their parents to tell them what happens next.

janeainsworth Wed 24-Sep-14 23:12:44

I was aware of death from a very early age, as my maternal GF had died 3 years before I was born. There were photographs of him on the sideboard and we used to visit his grave with DGM on Sunday afternoons. So I just knew that everyone died one day.
I agree with you Merlot, the idea should be absorbed gradually through answering children's questions gently and appropriately.

I too hope your daughter doesn't go in with 'all guns blazing' absentgrandma. I don't suppose for one minute the teacher had any intention of upsetting your DGS.

gillybob Wed 24-Sep-14 23:20:25

I tell him he might change his mind when he is 100

Funnily enough durhamjen that's exactly what my grandma says to my DGC and she's not very far off. smile

Nelliemoser Wed 24-Sep-14 23:23:52

I suppose it is better explained in the context of someone or a pet dying etc. To just bluntly announce to five yr olds that everyone dies is inappropriate and scary.
I wonder how the issue arose and how it was actually handled on school.
Small children do have active imaginations and can

It is highly likely that a child would find that idea very worrying.

Nelliemoser Wed 24-Sep-14 23:28:47

Silly tablet and fat fingers!". Should read......
Children have active Imaginations and can put two and two together and make five.

durhamjen Wed 24-Sep-14 23:36:56

Yes, gillybob, my husband's mother is 92, and my grandson says she is not going to die until she's a hundred. He does know that, as his grandad died, things do not always happen in the right order.
She just laughs when he says he's pleased she's not dead yet. He's the one with ASD, and tells it like it is. His sister just gives him strange looks.

TwiceAsNice Wed 24-Sep-14 23:43:35

Children need to accept the concept of death but not in an abrupt way and it's not the schools responsibility to tell small children everybody dies. Small children can have separation anxiety and be terrified that their special people might die whilst they are in school , cue school phobia for a long time. I think the guns blazing approach is a problem because if the mum is not calm the teacher can make her feel in th e wrong about complaining instead of acknowledging her own gaffe. There are some excellent age appropriate books explaining death sensitively to small children at the same time as gentle discussion within the child's home. As a counsellor with extra training in child bereavement the issue handled badly has long term consequences for children

durhamjen Wed 24-Sep-14 23:54:24

When their grandad died, it was very abrupt.

merlotgran Wed 24-Sep-14 23:58:22

Two of my grandsons spent their early life in Northern Ireland where death is treated very formally and nothing is held back. During their summer break with their Dad a much loved and respected uncle died. They took part in all the ceremony including a two night wake and carrying the coffin even though they are only sixteen and fourteen. Two days after they returned home my mother - their beloved GG died and once again family life was taken up with bereavement and funeral arrangements. I am very proud of the way they coped with two distressing events in such a short time. We are more relaxed about death in our family and they must have welcomed the gentle ribbing from their English cousins about having to carry another coffin (they didn't!!) and a ceremony that was full of love but without any hard line traditions.

Death is hard to deal with at any age. All we can is explain, support and comfort.

durhamjen Thu 25-Sep-14 00:05:02

I've just finished reading Watership Down with my grandson. He wasn't sure if he was crying for Hazel or for his grandad at the end, but he insisted on reading it himself with tears rolling down his cheeks.

I am quite pleased to have started on Wind in the Willows today.

Faye Thu 25-Sep-14 00:40:19

I really think it depends on the child and do most of them really understand that dying is final. When my mother died three of my grandchildren were nearly four and they went to her funeral. They talked about her a lot and were sad, they realised she was old and sick and they understood that people died, so we thought. Seven months later when my grandson then 4 1/2 was getting close to having open heart surgery my SIL told my GD also 4 1/2 about her cousin's heart operation. She was distraught, it was awful, she was shaking with fear because my SIL said he could die. She realised if he could die at such a young age so could she die before she gets old. I wished my SIL hadn't said anything, he really frightened GD and I did not want my GS to be told he could die by his cousins. I think that was the only time I was grateful they live far apart.

About a year later my other GS who was born a week before GD started talking about dying. No one we knew had just died, I think he had just realised about death, even though he had known his Great Grandmother and attended her funeral. He said he didn't want to get old and die, he talked about dying for weeks. I think at that age he still did not realise that children can die too.

absent Thu 25-Sep-14 03:57:01

Death seems to be the last great taboo. So many people won't talk about it, pretend to themselves that it will never happen to them, are unable to offer condolences to the bereaved and so on. It is not uncommon for children to fear the deaths of their parents - it's not unusual for adults to dread the deaths of their parents either. I think it is probably better to talk about death in a general context rather than wait until a family member or even a pet has died and grief becomes a major factor. I also think it is a topic that can be discussed as and when just like birth or marriage. Probably the only other subject about which Brits are so secretive is how much they earn.

Purpledaffodil Thu 25-Sep-14 06:41:19

So true absent. In PSHE in Yr 1 in my old school Death was part of the curriculum. Sounds unlikely but it was dealt with so well. The teacher showed them her hand with a glove on it, she waved her hand around, wriggled her fingers etc. Then she took the glove off and it lay there inert and empty. The analogy being that is like the body when life/the soul has left it. The children also visit our local graveyard. They enjoy it, they absorb the message to different degrees as with all things. Certainly they will go home with further questions, but that is how it should be in my opinion.

suzied Thu 25-Sep-14 07:26:40

Yes, death is a fact of life, and there's no age when it's "too early". My own GC lost their cousin 18 months ago who was only 16, they also had a cat who died, and the youngest one said "Coco is now Bella's pet ". They made a little garden for both of them which was very touching, they also made balloons with their cousins name on and wrote her messages and let them off on her birthday. They are interested in history as well and talk about people who lived in the past. Don't have a go at the teacher, you don't know the context in which she talked about it, or whether it was answering a question from a child. What was she supposed to do? Lie? Maybe she shouldn't mention Father Christmas...

baubles Thu 25-Sep-14 07:52:07

I think it unlikely that this was done in an abrupt manner. The teacher probably found herself having to answer a direct question and what else could she have said.

I hope your grandson is ok now OP and that your daughter also is feeling calmer this morning.

When my son was around 5-6 we were walking past a cemetery very close to our home. He told me that when he died he wanted to be buried there so he would be near me. Had to blink back tears.

pompa Thu 25-Sep-14 08:01:40

This is a subject I find difficult to discuss, too easy for me to be glib.
I do admire those that can embrace death with a positive mind as we have seen with Stephen Sutton.
As we never know when the fateful day will come we should try to always live life to the full.
I had a serious car smash a year ago, It all happened in seconds and I was very lucky to walk away, it could easily have been my last second.

GrannyTwice Thu 25-Sep-14 08:32:12

OP - part of your dd's reaction is probably related to her feelings about death. My dsis was exactly the same - she tried to shield her dc from the whole concept of death. When the dear old man next door died, she told them he had 'gone away' and I thought that could be more upsetting than the truth. No one can criticise the teacher as we have absolutely no idea of the context in which it occurred but I agree that the teacher had to tell the truth. I remember when I was about 17/18 answering my db's question 'does everyone die' ( he was 4/5) by saying yes but that usually only when they were very old. I've also found that about this age children often discover the concept of infinity with numbers - fascinating to watch their faces as they realise numbers go on for ever.

Greenfinch Thu 25-Sep-14 08:32:49

I agree with all that has been said and would commend the teacher for not ducking out of the question. I am surprised that a child would get to the age of 5 and not ask questions at home about it. Death is all around us even if it is a wild bird or the leaves from the trees. My grandson with autism has been asking about it ever since he could talk with questions such as gillybob mentioned : "how do you know when you are dead?"
"will you be happy when you are dead?" and "will you come back to life again ?"(a difficult one if you have different religious views from the parents ).A somewhat amusing incident happened when we took him to the Natural History Museum aged 5.He hadn't quite grasped the concept of "extinct" and asked will Auntie A (a much loved great aunt who had died the year previously ) be here? When we said she would not he replied "well she is extinct "smile
I love the analogy of the glove purpledaffodil