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