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Let’s not Camouflage Death, Let Children Know Death as it is!

While going for a walk with my daughter, many a time, we have encountered a

dead squirrel. As I am not comfortable with either talking about death or looking

at dead animals, I would often shield my daughter from the sight of a dead


However, once, during play, children spotted a dead sparrow and they invited

everyone to look at it. Now, if I would have shown my aversion, their curiosity

might have been killed. Hence, at this moment, I had no option, but to confront

the topic of death heads on.

And I did. After all, understanding death is a critical part of the emotional

development that should happen in the early years, isn’t it? The first questions

about death commence from a very young age and children perhaps comprehend

mortality of life at different stages of life.

So, when children spotted a dead sparrow, I had to re-center my discomfort,

confront it and look at the sparrow with the children to wonder what may have

happened. Raedita, age 4.5 said, the sparrow might have died by crashing into the

glass door above. Cosimo, age 5 said, “Oh My God, Oh My God, the sparrow is

dead. I am not going to touch it. I am not going to touch it.” Soon after, Mohi, age

2 exclaimed in excitement, “Look, look, look” pointing towards a sparrow flying

above us. Raedita rather wisely opined, “I think, this sparrow is the dead

sparrow’s friend. It has come to see what we are doing to its friend.” Cosimo, in a

matter of fact way, added, “now, the sparrow will never eat anything.”

Aprameyaa, age 4, came to inspect the dead sparrow and simply lifted it up

holding its little legs and started examining the body. To some of you who might

feel awkward reading this, let me remind you, this is exactly what 11th grade

students do in a Biology laboratory.

Cosimo said, “I am not going to touch it, it has germs on it”. I said, “Yes”. But, we

can wash our hands soon after. He chose not to touch the sparrow, however.

And, I wondered with the children, “Now, what should we do?”

“How should we bid him adieu?”

After examining the body and brainstorming a few ideas, I offered a suggestion,

“should we bury it?” Children exclaimed a big YES.

Next, we had to locate an appropriate burial spot for the dead sparrow.

Eventually, we decided to bury it underneath the lemon tree. Children dug the

mud little by little and made the spot ready. It was 100 percent child-led process

with friendly suggestions from adults in response to the questions posed to us.

And, this is how the burial ceremony started. Aprameiyaa and Raedita engaged in

teamwork to carry the body of the sparrow to the spot. Cosimo was passively

engaged in the entire process while maintaining a physical distance.

Finally, the children buried the sparrow. At this point, I modelled an authentic gesture straight from my heart by offering a prayer. As Heather Shumacher* remarks in her

book, ‘Its OK Not to Share’, “rituals such as these can make a big impression.

Rituals present an emotional side, and model both living and the dead.”

We did wash our hands after the burial ceremony.

After a few months, Aprameyaa spotted a crushed foetus of a bird. This time the

children wondered about the foetus and what would have happened? How did

the foetus die? What would happen to the mother? They used a magnifying lens

to see how the limbs of the foetus were being formed. Truth be told, I was yet

uncomfortable with examining it myself. We are grateful for our community

experience where everyone is a learner and a teacher, our community parent,

Kasturika chose to be with the children answering all their questions about the


Eventually they carried the foetus to the same spot for burial where we had

buried the dead sparrow a few months back.

As I observed children being engrossed in this process, it occurred to me for an

umpteenth time, how simply magical child-led play is. Play has taught children

about life as well as death.

Learning is a natural consequence of child-led play: when children are not diverted to "learning activities" by well-intentioned adults.

Many days passed by, one day I spotted a dead sparrow at home. I informed

Raedita. She immediately announced that she will go and bury it. I did'nt have the

heart to see the dead bird, but she was oblivious to it and just wanted to give a

goodbye ceremony. She simply took care of the dead body and buried it while

offering a prayer.

Cosimo, Aprameyaa and Raedita are at an age where they will

perhaps remember these experiences years long into adulthood. It makes me

wonder what they are going to think of the burial ceremonies at Sahaj when they

grow up as adults.

If there is something that I have learnt through my multiple experiences dealing

with dead snails, sparrows, fetuses at Sahaj, it is the realization that it is

important to talk about death without camouflaging it; for instance as somebody

might say to children, “the sparrow is sleeping” or “it’s very sick”. Then, children

might feel scared of going to sleep, or even when they fall sick.

One could say with confidence and compassion, “the sparrow is dead; it will never

fly and eat and do poop”. When we talk about death as it is, children will be

emotionally evolved to accept the death of a loved one, a pet or a family member,

when it occurs. When children see dead worms, dead birds, listen to stories of

their ancestors, see family photo albums, their brains start comprehending the

inevitable lifecycle of mortality.

Many of us shy away from talking about death with pre-school children. Instead

of saying, “grandpa went to heaven” or “grandpa went to God”, it is highly

recommended that we explain death as it exists, “grandpa died, he will never

come back.” When we say grandpa went to God or heaven, as per Heather Shumaker*, children think that, grandpa has gone some place and might come back one day.

Talking about the physical as well as emotional impact of death in a non-didactic

tone is what our children need us to do. Early years are all about exploring the

world and death is an integral part of a lifecycle, isn't it? While a dead ant or a

dead worm has never inspired the kind of curiosity that a dead sparrow did at

Sahaj, however, as adults we strive to model compassion and kindness by saving

ants, worms and snails as well. It is a normal sight to see children putting snails

and caterpillars to safety without ever being told to do so. “Sorry, you had to die!”

is what one child said to a snail. Once, Cosimo, age 6 years spent 30 minutes to make sure an ant was safe and alive.

*Heather Shumaker writes books for children and adults. She began writing books in elementary school and is now an award-winning author of several books for adults. Her best-selling book 'It's okay not Share' answers many parenting questions to empower parents raise competent and compassionate children

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