It was a sad day in the two-year-old class.
For the teachers. The children didn’t know where Pete the fish had gone. Only that he would be back soon.
After work, the lead teacher was going to go pick up Pete Jr. from the store so that when the kids came in the next day, it would be just like Pete had never left.
That’s what we do, isn’t it? Try to shield children from the reality of death. Even the death of a pet.
Studies indicate that parents and children usually have their first conversation about death when the child is around age 3 (Renaud, Engarhos, Schleifer, & Talwar, 2015). However, it is not until about age 7 that children actually begin to have a clear understanding of what death really is and what it means. It’s difficult for young children to really grasp such an intangible concept.
Science reports that failing to truthfully discuss the reality of death and separation can cause further grief in children (Renaud, Engarhos, Schleifer, & Talwar, 2015). Allowing children to discuss difficult topics in a safe environment provides them with a sense of security. It is appropriate to encourage them by saying that even though we can be sad that the loved one died, we can still remember the happy times we had with them, and look at pictures from when they were alive. If you believe in heaven, that’s a great opportunity to talk about seeing them again in heaven where no one dies, and how God will take care of them for us.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to your child about death, then you’re not alone. Most parents report feelings of discomfort when having that conversation with their young children (Renaud, Engarhos, Schleifer, & Talwar, 2015). But it is something that needs to be done. Myths and stories only last so long, and then you have to talk to them all over again.
Back to Pete the fish.
That afternoon, as I was carefully trying to conceal the secret of what had actually happened to the beloved classroom pet, I was suddenly caught off guard by a straightforward question from the littlest girl in the class.
“Is Pete dead?”
I had never spoken with a child about death before, and wasn’t quite sure how far she wanted to take it, how her parents would feel about me having that conversation with her, and how the lead teacher would take it when she got back and found out the cat was out of the bag. But I couldn’t lie to the girl.
“Yes,” I said. “Pete is dead, and he isn’t coming back. But tomorrow when you come to school we will have a new fish.”
“Okay,” said the little girl as she turned back around in her chair and continued eating her snack.
Have you had the conversation with your child? What did you tell them? Let me know in the comments!
Renaud, S., Engarhos, P., Schleifer, M., & Talwar, V. (2015). Children’s Earliest Experiences with Death: Circumstances, Conversations, Explanations, and Parental Satisfaction. Infant & Child Development, 24(2), 157-174.