Teachable Moments Occasioned by "Small Deaths"
by Ute Carson
Children and Death, Edited by Hannelore Wass and Charles A. Corr, 1984


Eastern Airlines announces the final boarding call for the flight from Gainesville to Atlanta. My mother walks to the departure gate flanked by two of her grand- daughters who are both crying. "Why do you have to leave?" Claudia attempts for the last time to change the inevitable. My mother, herself in tears, explains and reassures, "I¹ll be back next year." "Next year?" Caitlin sighs, a promised reunion too remote for a ten-year-old. Cecile, our three-year-old, skips along with excitement. "You guys, you¹ll miss the plane," she reminds us. My mother proceeds through the checkpoint and waves to us again from the steps of the plane before she enters the aircraft and disappears from sight. We run outside to watch the plane taxi down the runway and take off. "Grandma flies up into the sky," Cecile shouts. We talk on the way home about the sadness of departures and I try to console the older girls with promises of future visits. When we return home we acknowledge that we are going to miss Grandma after a two-month stay. Cecile opens the guest room door and, twirling around to us, announces, "Grandma is gone." Then she begins to take off her clothes and, minutes later, is tucked under my mother's sheets. "I'm always going to sleep in Grandma's bed," the tells us. In no time she is asleep, taking the longest nap she has had for quite some time.

Children experience "small deaths" at all ages through separations from toys and pets and people. Life presents these situations to children and they develop mechanisms for coping with them. In the intimate family situation, as well as in the classroom setting, children need help in making sense of experiences of loss. We need to guide children without imposing an adult point of view. Children often see a loss through quite different eyes. They are ingenious in finding channels to work through a hurtful event. It is important that teachers have their own perceptions about death, are comfortable with the subject, and able to answer questions honestly. But even more important is listening carefully to what children tell us about a particular experience. It is our task to hear children and to interpret for them and for ourselves what they are going through.

Children differ in their responses to loss. Some are more curious than others, some are timid and frightened. Children also react according to their level of maturity. Anna, seven years old, and Lisa, twelve, have just listened to their mother read them a story involving a death when the conversation turns to the possibility of their own mother's death. Their mother reassures them that she hopes to live a very long life but that death can occur at any time. Lisa breaks into tears and throws her arms desperately around her mother's neck. "No," she sobs, "you must never, never die, even when you are very old." After Lisa's outburst Anna smiles proudly at both and declares, "Mommy, when you die I'll bury you under the lilac bush in the garden. Won't that be a pretty place?" Lisa is no more sensitive a child than Anna but being in a stage of development where breaking into adolescence and independence is accompanied by the need for strong support, she cannot bear the thought of ever losing her mother. Anna, still anchored in a firm mother - child union, is not yet threatened by the possibility of separation.

As teachers we must keep attuned to children's emotional development. On the subject of death it is our task to listen for hidden questions, uncover buried fears, and clarify misconceptions. It may also be appropriate, on occasion, to leave children alone, if probing is apt to violate their privacy. Children need to learn to mourn and to find ways to recover, but the way is not always straight and there are temporary forms of denial which need to be respected. Aunt Hannah is known to me as a person who has weathered many losses in her life and has given

comfort and strength to others bereft. Her story may exemplify the importance of letting children guide us in deciding how much to tell, when to tell, and when to be silent.

Aunt Hannah was born in a farm community at the beginning of this century. Babies were delivered in the home and people died there as well. A farm worker was hit by lightning during harvest time, a boy killed by a runaway horse, a mother died in childbirth. Numerous small gravestones told of the early death of children. Pets died and farm animals were slaughtered for consumption. Rabbits were hunted in the fields. When a person died, his body was laid out in the parlor for three days. Aunt Hannah recalls the odor of decomposition mingled with the fragrance of flowers surrounding the deceased. "The smell stays with you," she tells me, "like the sight of blood gushing from a butchered pig."

Aunt Hannah was ten when her grandmother died. It was customary to view the body and for the community to participate in the feast following the funeral. Children were not asked whether they wanted to take part. It was taken for granted. When the time came for the immediate family to take their place at grandmother's coffin, little Hannah refused to go. She had already wetted her pants and been scolded by her mother. "Let the child be," counseled the girl's visiting aunt. And since there was no opportunity for lengthy discussion, Hannah's mother dropped the matter. She grieved, too, but for her the loss was not unanticipated. She would miss her mother in many ways, not least as an extra hand around the house. Grand- mother had helped with many household chores and done all the darning. That's how they had found her, slumped over in her armchair. Death had interrupted her, knitting a pair of woolen socks.

Hannah's aunt took her for a walk that funeral day. They talked until Hannah's tight little fist finally relaxed under the gentle pressure of that adult hand. In spite of the farm chores that needed doing, the graves at the cemetery were always tended by members of the family. It was weeks before Hannah's aunt returned to the farm. When she set out to pay her customary visit to the cemetery; she asked Hannah to go along. "That child hasn't been to her grandmother's grave once," her mother commented. Later at the burial place Hannah and her aunt set about pulling weeds, straightening tendrils of wild ivy. "I know you can't hear me down there, Grandmother," Hannah suddenly burst forth with anger, "but I don't like it at all. Now nobody tells me stories, and I have to feed the chickens all by myself."

Hannah frequented her grandmother's grave weekly from then on, and one day she was near tears. "I do miss you, Grandmother," she mumb1e and went on, "but Mr. McNeil said, if there are too many deer we have to shoot some or they will overpopulate the forest. Maybe it's the same with old people. It would be too crowded if everybody lived forever. I'll just come and visit you here." Several elements of denial as well as the beginning of a slow healing process are to be found in Hannah's recollections. Eventually Hannah came to terms with the finality of her grandmother's death. However, what helped her at this early stage was that she was neither confronted abruptly by facts nor pushed into a resolution of her grief by adults. Her aunt intuitively sensed that Hannah needed time to work through the loss on her own terms.

The teacher should, after the parent, be the second most important pedagogue in a child's life. Education involves the transmission of facts but, more importantly, the formation of children's attitudes. In helping children understand losses which they experience all along, we need to discern their perceptions before guiding them. Materials such as books, films and television, as well as children's own experiences, can be starting points for discussions and, to some degree, tools in shaping opinions. There should be no taboos on subject matter. What matters is the approach.


It is important for the teacher to have a basic knowledge of the developmental stages according to which the average child perceives death. Also helpful is an appreciation of the importance fantasy plays for children dealing with separation and loss. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment (1), Bruno Betteiheim takes the fairy tale as the art form which best helps children to deal with problems of growing up and interpreting the world. "The child," he writes, "intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence" (1). Bettelheim captures here some important meanings of fairy tales for children. We have learned from Piaget that the child's worldview remains animistic until puberty, and from Freud we know that it is the inner life that confronts the child with basic human predicaments. Only slowly, step by step, is the world outside incorporated and understood as a separate entity. Children need suggestions in symbolic form which help them transform their inner needs and struggles into thought and action in the outside world. According to Bettelheim, several characteristics of the fairy tale make this transition easier. The fairy tale states a conflict situation briefly and in simple terms. Since children are not yet equipped to handle ambiguity, the fairy tale simplifies dilemmas. The characters in a fairy tale are always either good or bad, beautiful or ugly, lazy or industrious. Choices are clear cut, nothing is ambivalent as in real life. "Presenting the polarities of character permits the child to comprehend easily the difference between the two, which he could not do as readily were the figures drawn more true to life, with all the complexities that characterize real people" (1 , p. 9). The child can thus identify with a character in a fairy tale and learn to make simple choices which are based on the child's like or dislike and not yet on right versus wrong. The fairy tale is an art form tailored to the needs of children. Children will choose one particular story again and again over all others Or they will choose the fairy tale which corresponds to their inner conflicts at a particular stage of development Children do not themselves know why they are fascinated by a certain fairy tale because the struggle is carried on at an unconscious level Betteiheim warns us repeatedly not to interpret for the child by pointing to hidden meanings. In doing so we risk destroying the enchantment the child derives from the story.

Fairy tales deal with the problems of life but they do it in a way that permits the child to cope and grow and not be unduly frightened. There are such problems as sibling rivalry, depicted in Cinderella; the changes of adolescence, as in Sleeping Beauty ; separation from parents, as in Hansel and Gretel. The themes of marriage and old age and death are often dealt with in fairy tales.

From four until puberty what the child needs most is to be presented with symbolic images which reassure him that there is a happy solution to his oedipal problems.

But reassurance about a happy outcome has to come first because only then will the child have the courage to labor confidently to extricate himself from his oedipal predicament (p 39).

A fairy tale always has a good ending. This strengthens the child's budding ego and encourages him to take on the unavoidable difficulties of life at a time when a more realistic viewpoint might undermine his still shaky self-confidence, it assures the child that everything will turn out alright in the end.

Many teachers are troubled by what seems to them the "unreality" of fairy tales What is the difference, they ask, between a fairy tale and telling the child a he, such as "Grandfather is in the flowers" when in fact he is dead and m the grave , or "The stork brought the baby," when the child has seen a picture of a baby being born Besides being bothered about the veracity of the fairy tales, critics often charge that such stories inadequately confront the lived world of the twentieth century child As Gloria Goidreich puts it, children today are "bereft of the shield of fantasy and heir to an age where reality and reason govern and penetrate every dimension of life" (2) Betteiheim responds that the problems of the inner life are timeless for children and that we are not lying when we allow them to develop according to their timetable. Children do not begin with an abstract understanding of things and acquire objective thinking over time. The emotions and the unconscious dominate the perceptions of childhood, and the world is experienced only subjectively at first Allowing children to cope with unconscious pressures in a childlike way will enhance, not diminish, their chances of developing a rational explanation of the world when the time is ripe.

Fairy tales often begin with the death of a parent and almost always end with the line, "and they lived happily every after"

An uninformed view of the fairy tale sees in this type of ending an unrealistic wish fulfillment missing completely the important message it con to the child. These tales tell him that by forming a an interpersonal relation to escape the separation anxiety which haunts him (1 pp 10).


The following fairy tale was told to a class of three and four year olds at the First Presbyterian Preschool in Gainesville, Florida. It was also told to a kindergarten class, a third grade class and a fifth grade class. Because it is not well known to English readers, I will recount it here. A mother of seven goats has to leave them alone at home while she goes on an errand. She warns the little goats to play nicely and not to open the door to anyone except herself. After she leaves, the little goats occupy themselves contentedly until a wolf comes to the door and asks to be let in. Twice the goats reject his overtures because he cannot identify himself as their mother who has a soft voice and white hooves. The wolfs voice is gruff and his paws are brown and covered with coarse hair. The wolf seeks a disguise first from a druggist who gives him chalk to soften his voice, subsequently from a baker who sprinkles flour over his paws. When he comes to the door the third time the goats mistake the wolf for their mother and let him in. He swallows six of the goats. The seventh one, the youngest, hides in a grandfather clock. Seeing the door open upon her return and discovering none of her children inside , the mother goat despairs. The sound of the voice of the smallest goat revives her hope. She fetches the little one and together they search for the wolf whom they find sleeping under an apple tree. The mother goat cuts open the wolf's stomach and rescues her children. Together they fill the stomach with heavy stones. When the wolf awakes him goes to the well to slake his thirst and the weight of the stones topple him into the well where he drowns. Mother and children dance around the well, singing merrily.

Many of the symbols which appear in this story are discussed by Betteiheim. The figure of the wolf, as portrayed in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs is multi-dimensional is at once the stranger who beckons the goats to the door, the male seducer, the world outside the self and the home, the externalization of the badness the child feels when he does not obey. The wolf is the animal in all of us and, most important for our purposes here, the wolf is the bringer of separation from the parent. It is the one who tempts the goats to try independence and who finally brings death in the form of swallowing six of them. That death is not final here corresponds to the child's understanding. Factual death is not yet comprehended.

What is experienced by the child are forms of death‹separation from the security and bondage of parents, and steps toward independence. The reunion with the mother at the end shows that independence is only slowly achieved and, if entered prematurely, can have grave consequences. The parent is still necessary as a shield and support in the maturing process. Death is seen here as a part of growing up. It is not the end of life in this story. Being cut out of the "womb" again, this time by the mother out of the wolf's stomach, means being reborn‹entering a new stage in one's development. The wolf is punished at the end by drowning. In this way the child can externalize the guilt he may feel over his efforts at separation. The mother figure can also be understood at various levels. Suffice it here to say that she is a bridge for the child. She leaves the children because she knows that separation is necessary, but she also returns and lends her assistance as long as the children are small and need her. The youngest goat holds a special place in the story. His example shows the child that even if he is small, he can avoid the worst fate by being clever. It also shows the child that older siblings have to endure growing pains first. For the very young, the close tie to the mother is sanctioned. Equipped with this "adult" interpretation of the story, I set out to test Bettelheim's assertion that "the Œtruth' of fairy stories is the truth of our imagination, not that of normal causality" (1 , p. 117), by telling the story, first, to the three- year I wish to stress that I am discussing the responses of school children to "small deaths" and not children's reactions to uncommon tragedy or the loss of a loved one.

The children listened attentively even though no visual material was used. Upon finishing the story I asked the following questions. Did you like the story? Was it a funny story? A sad story? A scary story? The answer most often given was that it was a bad story. Why? Because "the wolf came," or because "the wolf ate the goats." Whom did you like best in the story? All shouted, "the little goat." Why? "Because he is hiding." Could the wolf come to your door? This question brought the greatest re All children said no. When asked why, one child answered, "there are no wolves in Florida." Where are they? "They are way down town." Another said, "we have two doors in our house. The wolf would come to the other door." Or, "we have a big, big house. He couldn't come in." Or, "we would lock the house up " A final answer was, "my father has a gun, and my brother would shoot him." No child had any cognitive awareness of his dealings with separation or any of the other meanings of the wolf. All was denial and defense against the wolf.

The pictures the children drew afterward tell a different tale To the question, Do you think that the little goats did something wrong in letting the wolf in, there was an unequivocal "no " "We don't open the door to anybody " "A stranger might give us some poison candy " "We play nicely " "We do what mommy says" "My mom always stays with us and watches us " "We are with our mom " Children who stay with sitters gave similarly reassuring answers There was no apparent awareness of guilt Divided answers were given to the last question Should the wolf have drowned "Yes, because he eats goats " "Yes, because he is bad " Others felt, "no, because he was thirsty " Amplifymg this last answer, one little girl said, "I'm getting a stomach ache " There was no mention of cutting open the wolf's stomach and filling it with stones.

Fourteen children drew pictures after answering the questions Two could not remember the story well Five children, all boys, painted pictures with the wolf at the center (Fig. 1). The importance separation seems to play at this age, particularly for boys, is overwhelming. Only one boy drew the wolf in the water, which suggests that he has come to terms with the problem. At the other extreme was a boy who : drew squares all over the page and pointed to every square saying, "there is the wolf, and there he is too." The most sophisticated picture was done by Josh (Fig. 2). Drawing the wolf's paw covered with flour and extended through the door opening shows that Josh unconsciously perceived the disguises a symbolic figure can assume.

The other children, all girls, had the mother goat and/or baby goat and the wolf as their theme. Girls at this age seem much less threatened by separation and still quite secure in the mother-child relationship. Jennifer's picture (Fig. 3) shows her to be bound to her mother in a secure way but unaware of the wolf. She drew mother and baby goat. Another girl drew only the baby goat, that is, herself. Two drew the wolf and the goats, which indicates the theme of being threatened and swallowed. Lara drew the wolf inside the house with the baby goat looming large above the scene. No mother goat is in sight (Fig. 4). As I learned later, Lara is going through the trauma of adjusting to the presence of a new baby sister. Cecile drew ail three characters (Fig. 5). The picture shows the drowned wolf in the well (mastery of the conflict), as well as mother and baby goat (pointing out the mother-child tie still intact and secure).

There was some overlap in responses when I told the story to four but the older children gave more detailed answers. The discrepancy between the verbal response and the pictures was greater too. The children tried to outdo each other in answering the questions regarding how they themselves would handle the wolf, while in their drawings they concentrated on a variety of subjects. A slight but interesting shift occurred in that the children came up with very active defenses against the wolf, ranging from "putting a mask on" to "going boo !" to "I would chop his head off." Some of the four-year-olds also responded to the question regarding their (the little goats') own collusion in the wolf's gaining entry by admitting that "the goats shouldn't have opened the door so wide," "they should have just peeked out," "they should have checked the wolf's paw more closely." Guilt first becomes conscious here. When I came to the question, Were you surprised that all the goats were alive? the children turned the question around and asked me "How did the wolf eat the goats?" or "Why were the goats not chewed up?" Regarding the question, Should the wolf have drowned? Should the goats have put stones in his stomach? they asked, "How did the wolf drown?" "Why didn't he swim?" And after coming up with answers themselves, connecting the drowning to the heavy stones, a girl volunteered, "The wolf should have used his sharp claws to scratch the stomach open and get the stones out." Questions about the father goat were asked by the children. In one of the drawings a boy placed the father goat inside the house with the little goats and the mother. Another boy said, "Father goat is at work." I learned that his father is away on business a lot and that the family spent a recent vacation on the beach without him. In all the answers and the drawings, reality (as the world "outside") is incorporated into the fantasy world of this fairy tale. One boy began, "The mother goat told all the little goats to get into the space ship to get away from the wolf" (Fig. 6). Another boy shows a police car waiting to pick up the wolf (Fig. 7). In another picture the well is a boat that tips over, drowning the wolf.

Details get mentioned and included in the drawings. The stones appear frequently in the pictures, as does the grandfather clock. One little girl insisted on having white chalk so that she could portray the mother goat accurately. More children at this age use ail three figures‹the mother, the little goats, and the wolf. One boy used three devices to overcome the wolf problem (Fig. 8). There is the hiding place (the grandfather clock), the well water (which he wanted labeled "hot"), and the stones in the wolf's stomach. This is a child who had considerable difficulty adjusting emotionally to the nursery school and has only lately (mid year) come to like it.

The next groups to hear the story were classes at J. J. Finley Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida. The kindergarteners gave answers not fundamentally different from those given by pre-schoolers, though the details become ever more elaborate as the children grow older. The discrepancy between the verbal accounts and the drawings also continues to widen. Verbally, the children in the early grades (through approximately grade three) jump on the bandwagon against the wolf, outdoing each other in their attacks on the villain. In their drawings, however, many children return to the mother goat and the baby goat symbols. One very bright kindergartener named the baby goat after herself and had the mother goat call that name repeatedly. The wolf gets drawn more and more expressively. One girl showed the wolf's mouth full of big teeth. Means to frighten the wolf from the child's environment are used again and again. Matthew had his dog chase the wolf away (Fig. 9). Children are convinced by this age that the wolf must be punished. They are as concerned about his disguises as they are about his devouring the goats. They also are more ingenious regarding ways in which the little goats might have identified the wolf. As one girl suggested, "They should have seen the flour dripping from his paw." Affections are divided between the littlest goat ("because he is smart") and the mother goat ("because she put stones in the wolf's stomach"). A big change in perception is noticed with the third graders. I added a question in my discussion with this group, asking them to describe what the wolf did and then to tell me what the wolf means. Most said simply "a wild animal" or "he's like a fox." Only three of the twenty-five children attempted to translate the symbol into reality. One girl thought "the wolf could be a person dressed up for Hallowe'en in fur." Two others likened the wolf to a stranger coming to the door. No child expressly identified the wolf as the bringer of death, but the wolf clearly meant for many the tempter, against whom mother has erected rules and commands. One child's picture was a sequence of the deceptions the wolf used, followed by the admonishments of the mother (Fig. 1 0). No child said the wolf is not real or does not exist.

About the drowning the children were divided. Many saw the stones as punishment enough. Old age came up at this point, one girl suggesting that "maybe the wolf was old and needed food and had to catch the goats." Another girl drew the wolf under the apple tree with its stomach opened, the mother (scissors in hand) standing there while one of the goats escapes (Fig. 11). 1 inquired of the teacher about this girl's apparent preoccupation with death and rebirth and learned that her grandfather had died only a week prior to my visiting the class. The happy ending was important to most third graders. "The story was sad, but I'm glad it had a happy ending." "The wolf ate the goats, but in the end they all got out alive."

After these conversations about the wolf and related matters I was most surprised when I saw the pictures. Fourteen children of twenty-five drew neither the wolf nor the mother nor the baby goat but the grandfather clock where the little goat is hiding (Figs. 12 and 13). One boy showed the little goat hiding in the television. A strong identification with the baby goat suggests that the self at this age has gained enough strength to overcome the close familial ties and is no longer "The little goats make a mistake by opening the door to the wolf."

"The mother is cutting open the fox and the baby goats are coming out."

Under the domination of the threat of separation. The outside world gets explored and takes on new importance. Friendships provide an alliance against being over- whelmed by the world . The little goat suggests to the child that he can master the challenges of the world, and that the wolf‹danger, loss, temptation, and separation‹can be outsmarted. Tears may be shed over the death of a beloved pet, but even greater sadness is experienced when a close friend moves away. The child is still vulnerable and needs protection (grandfather clock, or another friend), but death is not of primary concern when all energy is directed toward strengthening the self and establishing a secure place. in a small community (classmates, friends) outside the family. By this age, the child is also beginning to comprehend others' problems, as one girl's picture suggests in portraying the little goat comforting a crying mother goat with the words, "Don't cry, mommy."

As I moved up through the grades, the fifth graders exercised increased control over the story . For example , they preferred to work with pencil over crayon in doing their drawings. Otherwise , there was little change in the responses except that they were reticent to talk about the story. I had to press them for answers. At this age peer pressure is very strong, with the result that the children fear giving a "wrong" answer and appearing foolish. There was, however, unanimous agreement that the goats were careless in admitting the wolf to their house. One boy cited the fact that a wolf does not have hooves like a goat and claimed that the little goats were negligent in not noticing this. For the first time a boy identified the wolf as evil, saying that the wolf was not just a stranger or a deceiver but evil itself. Of the twenty-one children, six identified with the little goat, as shown in their drawings. Two girls drew the little goat outside the protection of the grandfather clock. One drew it outside the house. Both girls, I learned, had recently had to work through the breakup of a friendship which had left them quite vulnerable. All other pictures show the wolf very much at the center of things. The wolf is the tempter and the wrongdoer, as shown in Andrea's picture (Fig. 14), where the wolf knocks at the door of the peaceful home of the little goats. Or he is the deceiver, as shown in a picture of the wolf with a white paw (Fig. 1 5) and in another of the wolf entering the house (Fig. 1 6). But the comment on this drawing is also revealing. Even though the wolf is present and eats the goats, the smart mother punishes the wolf by putting rocks in his stomach. In "The wolf knocks at the door of the peaceful home of the baby goats."

"I thought the part in the story where the mother goat put the rocks in the wolf's stomach was pretty smart on behalf of the author."

Yet another picture the mother is an ally. She arrives at the sleeping wolf's side with a pair of scissors ready (Fig. 17). Birth and death symbols are mixed in several of the pictures. The wolf (the bringer of death), slumbering in the shade of the apple tree, looks quite pregnant (Fig. 18). This symbolic ambiguity should remind us of the perceptions of the three- and four-year-olds for whom the wolf first played a central part in their attempts at independence. Here, as there, he is the severer of ties, but now in a different disguise and inhabiting a more complex world.


The unconscious and the emotions govern a small child's life, but reality does exist even if separated only in part from the inner world The older the child, the more reality gains the upper hand Mrs. Lenox did not intend that the little book, Year In and Year Out With Pixie and Mouse, should turn into a lesson about death for her kindergarten class. Each day Mrs. Lenox reads aloud to the class about a particular month of the year. January is about snow and an underground burrow for the mouse family July brings a harvest of apples and peaches About November she read

What does this mean
The autumn crocuses ring
Mother Mouse died today
Did she have a stomachache
Or did she catch a cold
So late in the year?
The animals of the meadow mourn
And the mouse child shudders
Because she is without her mother
Everybody cries
The November fog is damp
Let's light our lanterns.

When Mrs. Lenox begins to read about December and Christmas the next day, Jennifer interrupts, "Read us about Mother Mouse is dead again " The rest of the class crowds around Mrs. Lenox and demands the same page be read again and again. The children are drawn to the subject but there are no questions at first, only the repeated demand that the poem be read. Recess brings some help Stephen finds a dead beetle and starts poking it with a stick. The children congregate around. "Ooo," someone yells. "Leave it alone," another interjects. "It's dead." Cheryl curls up her nose, "Look at all the ants eating it." The children are simultaneously repelled and fascinated.

"It's time to come in," Mrs. Lenox calls to her class. The dead beetle and the poem about the mouse elicit a variety of reactions from the children. "Mrs. Lenox, what is Œdead'?" Erica asks. Before she can answer, Eric mumbles, "Don't be stupid. When ants eat you, you're dead " "Is the Mother Mouse dead?" Erica continues. "Yes," Mrs. Lenox confirms. "But when will she wake up again?" "She won't, Erica" "Did she eat something bad?" It is still Erica, pressing "Yes, perhaps she ate something that made her very sick." "But now the little mice are without their mother." Erica becomes agitated. "That's right, Erica, and that is very sad. For it doesn't happen very often. Most mothers die only after.

"It was nice to listen to a fairy tail instead of a composition." they have lived a long time." "How long?" John wants to know. "Until their children are grown up and can live without them, maybe even have children of their own." "How will I know when I'm dead?" Linda whispers. Mrs. Lenox explains, "Your heart will stop beating." She puts her hand over her heart. "Now," she instructs the children, "put your right hand on the left side of your chest. Feel it? It goes thump, thump. That's your heart." She goes from child to child, helping them feel their heartbeat. "When your heart stops beating, you are dead." The class is excited. "How does my heart beat?" Eric is back with his down-to- earth questions. "Let me show you." Mrs. Lenox goes to the basin and fills it with water. The group gathers around her. "Your heart is a big strong muscle about the size of your fist which opens and closes. The water is like the blood that is pumped from your heart throughout your body." "Even into my toes?" Eric looks quizzical. "Yes, Eric, into your toes and into every other part of your body." Mrs. Lenox squeezes the water out of her fist and opens it, letting water flow back in, then presses it out again. She lifts her hand from the water. "When your heart stops pushing the blood in and out, you are dead." "Like Mother Mouse?" asks Erica. "And like the beetle," Eric chimes in. "Death is disgusting," he goes on. "When you are dead, you look like a beetle." Erica seems exasperated with every one, including Mrs. Lenox. "But I am asking you, when does Mother Mouse wake up again?"

The lines about Mother Mouse have stimulated the children to ask questions about death. The subject has aroused their curiosity, but the reality of death seems at best partially understood by most and pushed aside by others. But, most important, the subject of death was discovered by the children and carried by Mrs. Lenox as far as the developmental stage of the children permits her to go.


Mrs. Douglas likes to garden. Living in Florida she finds that she can grow vegetables and flowers all year round, so she starts her school garden during summer vacation. One of the projects for her first graders is to be a unit on health foods, good eating habits, and balanced meals. She is pleased to have peas ready to be picked by September, and the tomatoes are also ripe. When it comes time for the tasting party, her pupils are thrilled to harvest the vegetables themselves, and even the finicky eaters taste the pea they have popped out of its green casing. The garden serves many educational purposes. The children learn the parts of plants, they press leaves for their art collections, and Mrs. Douglas explains the natural cycle of living things from birth through growth to decay. A rose on her desk, into whose blossom every child has stuck his nose at least once to whiff the fragrance, begins to lose its petals. "The rose is wilting," Mrs. Douglas tells the class. "Losing its petals is the beginning of a dying process. Later the leaves will dry and their edges will wrinkle" She crumbles the dry, fallen leaves m her hand "What do these leaves look like?" she asks the class. "Like Grandpa's tobacco," Raymond observes. "Like ashes," says Monica "Exactly," Mrs. Douglas concurs "And if we spread these ashes over some dirt, soon they will all be mixed together and we are back where the plant started, with the soil out of which a new seedling can grow"

When Mrs. Douglas plants her garden again the following year, she waits until classes have begun She realizes that the children need more involvement from the start and more responsibility for the maintenance of the garden. The children derive satisfaction from digging up the soil and sowing seeds. They are thrilled when the first seedlings peek through the earth, and they faithfully water and weed the school garden. Again this year the harvest proves to be the high point for all the little gardeners. After that they pay less and less attention to the plants, even though Mrs. Douglas tries to show them the discoloration of the leaves and explains how the plant prepares for cooler times by withdrawing moisture from all exposed surfaces and finally sheds its leaves. The children have raked together a small pile. Following a rainy weekend the leaves have a strange odor and are matted together. Mrs. Douglas tells the class about decomposition, about the elements breaking down the structure of the leaves and the growth process coming to an end. She also assures the children that the bare bushes will bring forth new growth in the spring.

At home in the evening Mrs. Douglas looks through the pupils' notebooks. She ponders one drawing which bears this label in neat handwriting: "This is a dead plant." She is pleased at how much the children have learned about the life cycle of plants, but she cannot explain a feeling of slight dissatisfaction with her garden project. Clearly, the children have understood how a seed is put into the soil, grows, bears fruit, then wilts and decomposes. The children can all distinguish between a living and a dead plant. Why does she still feel something is missing? A chance incident clarifies her puzzlement. After the vegetables are harvested, Becky brings some sunflower seeds to class. "Sunflowers," she tells Mrs. . Douglas, "are my mother's favorites because they really look like the sun. Can we plant them?" A spot in the garden is readied. After all dead plants have been pulled and the soil turned over, Mrs. Douglas draws a line about two inches deep. Each child deposits a few seeds in a hole along the line several inches apart. They fill dirt in over the seeds and sprinkle water over them. As the sunflowers come up, each child watches over his own plant with particular devotion. Green and ready to bud, the sunflowers are greeted each day by the expectant youngsters. Then one afternoon the sun shines mercilessly on the fragile plants and by evening their crowns are drooping, their shafts bent sideways. Becky comes running in the next day. "Our sunflowers are falling over," she cries. "They are all dry." She grabs a paper cup and runs to fill it with water and bring it to her plant. Many other children follow suit. Too late is the attempt to revive, the damage has been done.

Mrs. Douglas stands before a disappointed group, explaining how the sun, which makes plants grow, can also kill them by beaming down on them too long. "No," she reassures the class, "it was nobody's fault. You watered enough. It was an accident. The hot sun destroyed your plants and your work." The children remain listless the rest of the morning, and after school many a child glances at the devastated little plot.

To restore faith in life's continuation, Mrs. Douglas starts a new project the following day. She hands out small flower pots and new seeds. Together they begin again, and soon the enthusiasm for planting and gardening returns. Mrs. Douglas discovered that death, even in its smallest form, must be experienced to have an impact. To learn the facts of the life cycle is one thing, but to live through and experience the loss of a plant into which effort and concern have been invested is quite another matter.


"Mrs. Nelson, Mrs. Nelson, it's a bird. Come and look!" Peter's breathless out-burst leaves little room for a reply. He is off, running back to the track field where he has spotted a sandy plumaged bird with a black crescent around the back of its neck, the right wing dragging like an anchor adrift. Mrs. Nelson glances at the power lines spanning the athletic fields before she clasps both hands around the bird whose attempts at freeing himself are feeble but frantic. "Peter, run ahead and get a cardboard box out of the front closet. Amy, Sue, Mike, help him cover the bottom of the box with kleenexes." She follows slowly, trying not to loosen her grip but careful not to squeeze. "It's a ringed turtle dove," she instructs the class while placing the bird in the box. Amy hands the teacher her loosely knitted sweater which she spreads over the box. The dove is unusually docile. They bring it water and dip its beak into it. It becomes frantic again and flutters around for a few seconds. To fill the remainder of the hour Mrs. Nelson tells the class about different kinds of doves and pigeons, which are the larger members of the same species. But she cannot hold the class's attention for long. Again and again the children want to look at the dove, and they bombard their teacher with questions. "Can we keep it?" "Will the bird get better?" "Do you think it will fly again?" Mrs. Nelson has decided to stop at the veterinary hospital on her way home from school. She tells the class that the dove seems to have broken its wing when it struck the power lines above the track field. She hopes that Dr. Anderson can set the wing and tell them how to take care of the injured bird. "In any case," she instructs the class, "bring some small acorns and seeds tomorrow. Maybe we can start feeding it." "Let's name him," suggests Peter. " ŒLittle Dove'," Amy calls out. "No, let's call him ŒDovey'," is Sue's proposal. "Could it be ŒSandy' because of its color?" asks Mike. Mrs. Nelson writes the suggestions on the board and brings the decision to a vote. "The name of our little bird is ŒSandy'," she announces to the class. She is relieved when the school day has ended. The children, still in a state of high excitement, reluctantly prepare to leave for home.

Dr. Anderson is not able to offer good news about Sandy's condition. "It's not the wing alone, I'm sorry to say, Mrs. Nelson. The bird has suffered internal injuries as well. The kindest deed I can perform is to put it out of its misery." Mrs. Nelson, feeling miserable, nods her consent. "There will be no charge. I'm glad you brought it in." Dr. Anderson looks up questioningly: Why is that lady still standing there? "I need the bird back, when it's dead, I mean." Mrs. Nelson says this as someone who has made a decision which has not yet come fully to consciousness. Dr. Anderson's puzzlement about Mrs. Nelson heightens. He has treated many of her pets in the past and she always seemed a reasonable young woman to him. "Yes, I need the dead dove back," Mrs. Nelson says more steadily than before. "I left my class with the expectation of having a wounded animal to nurse back to health. I must not rob them of the only way I know to get them through their disappointment, and that is by having them take part in Sandy's burial." "It's up to you," Dr. Anderson replies. "If you'll step out into the waiting room, I'll hand you your box back in a moment. Remember, the bird will be stiff by tomorrow. You'll have some explaining to do." "I know. Thank you, Dr. Anderson."

It is not easy to face the class next morning. Mrs. Nelson waits until everyone is seated before bringing the box containing the dead bird into the room and placing it on her desk. Eager faces greet her and change expression as they discern some troubling news in her look. "Children, Sandy had to be put out of his misery. He had been hurt inside his body and he was suffering a great deal. He is dead now, and I know how sad this will make you. But if you try to think of Sandy first and then your own feelings, I think you will agree with me that putting him to death was the kindest thing we could do for him." After a moment of stunned silence Peter bursts forth, "Couldn't the vet have given Sandy a shot? Why did he have to kill him?" "Don't be angry with Dr. Anderson, Peter. I know that if there had been a shot that could have saved Sandy, Dr. Anderson would have given it to him. A veterinarian has chosen his profession because her cares about animals. He wants to help them get well. But he can't always do that." Heads sink to desktops, and a pin could have been heard dropping. "Would you like to see Sandy before we find a place to bury him?" Mrs. Nelson asks the children. They all file past the little box and take a glance inside. Amy asks, "May I touch?" "Of course," Mrs. Nelson replies, "that is a kind way to say goodbye." Amy's fingers glide over the dove's head and wings. "You expect it to move any minute, don't you?" "Yes, you do," is Mrs. Nelson's response, "but Sandy won't move anymore." "He won't be able to fly again?" Sue bursts into tears.

It is time to find a gravesite. Mrs. Nelson realizes that continuing to talk at this point will only heighten the tension and deepen the sorrow. The children walk out silently, but at the fence of the schoolyard they begin to argue over where the best place for Sandy might be. Mrs. Nelson wants to involve as many children as possible, knowing that participation will help them work through their sadness. One child holds the box, another digs the grave, another places Sandy in the excavated hole. Several place dirt back over the box, and then they are dispersed in several directions to find pretty objects such as flowers and stones to decorate the grave. "We won't forget you, Sandy," Mrs. Nelson closes their little ceremony. "Even though you were with us just a day, you made it a day that all of us will remember for some time to come." The story of the bird with the broken wing does not end here. The bird's death stirred many questions in the minds of the children. The following morning Peter kicked over a box of study sheets standing next to Mrs. Nelson's desk. It was the kind of box the children had buried Sandy in. "I don't like it that Sandy is dead," Peter mumbled. Mrs. Nelson guessed that other children also felt this way and decided to devote some time to their concerns. "Write something, anything you would like to say, about Sandy," Mrs. Nelson instructs the class. "if you want to go to the library and look up details about the pigeon and dove family, you may do so." There were many moving accounts of Sandy's death, but Peter's story is representative. "Sandy was a dove that flew into our schoolyard and hit a high wire and broke a wing. I found him. I wanted to keep him and love him. Doves are birds of peace . In the dictionary it says they are gentle and pure . Dove is the emblem of the holy spirit. Sandy was a pretty bird. His color was like sand. If I were Sandy I wouldn't want to die. I am glad I'm not Sandy. I believe Sandy still flies through the sky." The children want to hear each other's stories and listen with great interest. Mrs. Nelson comments and explains, reassuring them that, for them, death lies in the distant future. Whereas she had previously found it necessary to convince the class that it was merciful for Dr. Anderson to put Sandy to death, she now had to shift attention back to Sandy and away from the children's identification with the bird.

Two other small episodes occur. Mrs. Nelson customarily observes the children at play and it comes as no surprise to her to see Rachel and Sarah acting out Sandy's death. Rachel, spread out in the sand, holds her fingers in a cramped position much the way Sandy's foot had looked. Sarah walks around her, gently straightening her arms and legs. When she succeeds, she exclaims joyfully, "You can move again." Watching the two girls, Mrs. Nelson is glad she did not suggest role playing, as she had contemplated. Children will act out events that are unconscious or too painful to express verbally. Or, as we saw earlier, they may draw pictures of what they cannot yet say. In playing out a drama, conflicts are made external, and once external, they become less threatening. Young children, who have difficulty putting themselves in someone else's place also play out fantasies in numerous ways. Mrs. Nelson remembers her own five-year old stuffing a pillow under her play shirt and acting out fantasies of pregnancy and birth. The initiative for acting out inner events at an early age is best left to the child. Adult suggestions such as "Why don't you play the dead bird" or "You be Dr. Anderson" put an unduly rational frame on the child's imagination. At about the third grade level children begin to identify with others‹close friends or a grandparent. But even such identification is still largely a projection of self. The other person is primarily a support and buffer. At about the fifth grade level, children are capable of working through events by role playing suggested by adults. By this time children are able to empathize‹to imagine someone else's experience for themselves.

When Mrs. Nelson catches Richard and Scott digging up Sandy's grave several days later, she can hardly hide her anger. Taking the two scoundrels by the scruff of the neck, she trots them back to the classroom, plants them in their seats and asks, "What were you two up to?" The rest of the class is suddenly very attentive. Wrongdoing creates an atmosphere of excitement. "What were you doing?" Mrs. Nelson becomes insistent. The two conspirators look sheepishly at each other, unable to suppress a smirk. "We wanted to see what Sandy looks like now," Scott confesses. "Ooo , gross," several disapproving sounds echo through the classroom. "You guys should be ashamed of yourselves," Amy admonishes. "And what did you find?" Mrs. Nelson asks, having regained her teacherly composure. "Goofy stuff and lots of tiny bones," Richard blurts out. Pride resonates in his voice at the discovery that has been made, and Mrs. Nelson does not fail to register the contentment in his look, a contentment that comes from having satisfied one's curiosity. "I could have brought some in, but you wouldn't let us finish," Richard continues. "The bones are smaller than chicken bones." By now it is clear to Mrs. Nelson that the two boys did not perceive digging up Sandy's grave as a defilement, as an adult might. She sees her role as teacher in two ways.

First, she must respond to the children's curiosity. So she gives a short talk on the durability of bones and how explorers sometimes find the bones of people of bygone ages in their excavations. "It is our bones and teeth that survive longer than any other parts of our body." She also has to explain a custom to the children that has been invented by society to protect the grave against the curious. She tells of grave robbers who wanted the jewels that had been buried with the dead and of bodies exhumed for medical study. She tells them about the sacredness of burial grounds m societies which believed that the spirits of the dead inhabited graveyards "And even today," she continues, "the cemetery can serve people otherwise busily involved in everyday activities as a quiet place where they may go to think about someone who has died Not that we should not think about the person wherever we may be, bi the graveside is a special place at which to remember " "I know," interrupts Becky, "we visit my grandmother's grave. She made fresh brownies when she was alive." "Yes, Becky," Mrs. Nelson wraps up her little talk, "we remember people by the things we did with them or the things they did for us. Graves are just one possible place to recall them. We might think of Sandy when we see a bird flying, but it is also comforting to have a place where we know he lies buried." "Where his bones lie," Richard mumbles, a remark which Mrs. Nelson graciously passes over.


School-related experiences provide ample opportunity for teachers to engage children's interest in death. Materials, such as books, films, and television, should not be overlooked. A well-wrought story can evoke empathy and understanding.

The Yearling (3), by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a book about relationships which range from little Jody's tie to a particular place in rural Florida, his attachment to his parents, especially his father, interactions with neighbors, his friendship with the crippled and demented boy, Fodderwing, his bond to the foundling, the fawn, Flag. It is also a story about growing up, and the title refers not only to the young deer but to young Jody as well, as a remark by the father to his son at the end of the book reveals. "You've done come back different. You've taken a punishment. You ain't a yearlin' no longer" (p.403).* For Jody, growing up means working through those many relationships and assessing their meaning. He experiences the value the land holds for him through hard, satisfying labor. He learns from his father through imitation, and their relationship goes through tests of trust. After a year of painful maturing, Jody is able to take his ailing father's place on the homestead. Through living and working with his neighbors Jody sees that even uncouth and rowdy folk are stricken by sorrow and hardship. Twice Jody must deal with the breaking of an important relationship‹the death of Fodderwing, and the killing of his beloved fawn.

The tone of the friendship between the two boys resounds in the joy of one of their meetings. "Jody saw Fodderwing hurrying toward him. The humped and twisted body moved in a series of contortions like a wounded ape. Fodderwing lifted his walking stick and waved it. Jody ran to meet him. Fodderwing's face was luminous" (3, p. 45). Jody, who does not find his friend's body repulsive, is able to enter into Fodderwing's strange, wondrous world. Sharing a love for animals, they tend and play with the various pets Fodderwing has acquired. Then one day, when Jody comes to show Fodderwing his new fawn, his friend is dead. "Like as if you blowed out a candle" (3, p. 191), an older brother informs him. The sudden news numbs Jody and he feels nothing at first, "no sorrow, only a coldness and a faintness. Fodderwing was neither dead nor alive. He was simply nowhere at all" (3, p . 191). When he confronts his dead friend , laid out on the bed , he is frightened. He wants to escape the terrifying scene, because that waxen face does not belong to his Fodderwing.

Three experiences help Jody over the shock and sorrow. Fodderwing's brother encourages Jody to say something to his dead friend. "He'll not hear, but speak to him" (3, p. 192). Jody whispers "hey," and suddenly the paralysis is broken. Jody understands that "death was a silence that gave back no answer" (3, p. 192). But Fodderwing has become familiar again. Next, he is given a task‹to care for Fodder- wing's pets. Even though he does not feel the joy he felt at sharing the task with Fodderwing, he derives comfort from doing what his friend is no longer able to do. He is also instructed to help Fodderwing's mother with her household chores. The best comfort comes, however, from his fawn to which he briefly returns and for which he asks when it is his turn to sit the night vigil with Fodderwing. Once again Jody is near panic when he is left alone at the deathbed, but Flag keeps him company and Fodderwing is not so frightening to look at when an image occurs to Jody.

When he leaned far back, Fodderwing looked a little familiar. Yet it was not Fodder- wing who lay, pinched of cheek, under the candlelight. Fodderwing was stumbling about outside in the bushes with the raccoon at his heels. In a moment he would come into the house with rocking gait and Jody would hear his voice. He stole a look at the crossed crooked hands. Their stillness was implacable. He cried to himself soundlessly (3, p. 198)

After the burial, Jody is given "Preacher," the lame redbird, as a remembrance. The death of Fodderwmg is a sad experience for Jody, but the death of Flag presents an existential crisis Flag is Jody's companion from the day he finds him, and even at night the fawn is at his side. As Jody put it, "he and Flag were free together" (3, p 360). To Jody's mother, Flag was always a nuisance. Full of curiosity, he had often come to her table uninvited. As a yearling he is forbidden the house because he has grown too big and restless. Jody tries to keep the fawn out of mischief, but one night Flag tramples the tobacco seed bed. He swears to his angry parents that it will never happen again. Then one morning when Jody inspects the young cornfield, he sees that all the delicate sprouts have been pulled up. He detects Flag's sharp hoofprints and knows who is the offender. After a fearful debate, Jody's parents give him one last chance. Jody is allowed to build up the fence around the field and plant again. But after all the hard work, Flag clears the new fence without trouble and again pulls the shoots up by their roots. Jody's father tells him to take the yearling out into the woods and shoot him. It is a choice between that and going hungry. All day long Jody thinks of alternatives to killing his beloved deer but none are workable. He returns at night, having been unable to carry out his father's order. His father, who is bedfast, tells Jody's mother to shoot the deer. She aims, fires, and wounds the animal but does not kill him. Flag topples into the sinkhole, a familiar rendezvous point with Jody in happier days. Jody has to finish the botched job so that his fawn will not suffer. The deed accomplished, "Jody threw the gun aside and dropped flat on his stomach. He retched and vomited and retched again. He clawed into the earth with his fingernails. He beat it with his fists. The sinkhole rocked around him. A far roaring became a thin humming. He sank into blackness as into a dark pool" (3, p. 388).

Jody feels that his father betrayed him. Nothing matters now but getting away. His odyssey on the river is an exhausting one. He encounters loneliness and discomfort and terrifying hunger. Found unconscious from starvation, he is brought back to the shore of his island by a passing boat. Seized by homesickness, he makes his way back and is welcomed with relief and joy by his father, who knows what a despairing road his son has traveled. I've wanted it to be easy for you. Easier'n Œtwas for me. A man's heart aches, seein' his younguns face the world. Knowin' they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin'. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever man Œs lonesome. What's he to do then? What's he to do when he gets knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on. (3, p. 404) And in his exhausted sleep the first night back home Jody answers his father, in a way. "He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life. But a man took it for his share and went on" (3, p. 405).

It all depends on the relationship. Animals are not more important than human beings, but in this story the most significant relationship for Jody was with his deer. For the child even a small loss can be painful. This should stand as a warning against adult judgments such as "It was only a pet." Whatever binds us most deeply is worth being mourned when lost.


Most children relegate death to old age or at least to a distant time in the future. To have a death occur in their school, striking close to them, is a shocking experience for many. Thinking back on our own early school years, we tend to re. member our friends but find that most other faces have faded from memory over time. Those few who died young are, by contrast, usually remembered well.

If you enter a school on a normal day and there is neither laughter nor mild mayhem, and every pupil walks the corridors silently, you know something out of the ordinary must have taken place. The news of Doug's death has preceded Mrs. Wright into her fifth classroom. She has not yet heard when she stops in at the library to check out a book before going to her room. Miss Rex hands her the book without engaging her in the usual small talk. "What's happened?" Mrs. Wright inquires. "Doug Murphy, in Pat Smith's class, got killed in a car accident this morning. The sitter was driving a carload of children to school when a truck didn't stop at the intersection of Main and Fifth and hit the car broadside. All the children were injured, and Doug was killed on the spot." Mrs. Wright had not known Doug personally but she had seen him play ball occasionally. He was a strong looking boy with a mane of blond hair, a kid with a reputation of being a nice guy, an average student, good at sports, and not very well known around the school, except by his fellow soccer players. The atmosphere of shock that has swept through the school affects Mrs. Wright too as she stands at her desk sorting through her notes for the morning's first class period. She stacks the notes to one side and watches the children come in and quietly take their seats. "You all, by now, have heard the sad news of Doug's death," she finally breaks the silence. Tears run down her cheeks, not because of any personal association with Doug but simply because, like everybody else, she feels a deep pain at the thought that so young a person has been killed, and in a stupid accident at that. A truck failed to stop! The teacher's tears bring release to pent up emotions, and several students begin to weep. Mrs. Wright sits down. There is nothing more to say or do except to allow time for sorrow's expression.

Mike comes up to Mrs. Wright's desk. "May I have permission to ask the class something?" "Of course," Mrs. Wright nods. "The funeral," Mike begins, "will be in three days. I think we should all go." "You should give that suggestion some thought," Mrs. Wright agrees. "Talk it over with your parents. Don't feel obligated to be there, but if you decide to attend as a class, I will of course go with you. How many of you have attended a funeral before?" Only three hands go up.

The principal announces over the loudspeaker that all students and teachers are to come to a short assembly. Students will be dismissed for the day on account of Doug Murphy's tragic death. Buses will be prepared to depart the school ten minutes following the assembly. Accompanying her class down to the auditorium, Mrs. Wright overhears several conversations. Students have turned to a reconstruction of the accident, to the details of how it happened.

The class's decision to go to the funeral was unanimous. Mrs. Wright studies the faces of the students as they listen to the eulogies and file by the closed casket, but she can only guess at some of the hidden emotions. At this age children guard their feelings. After the day of Doug's death, no more tears are shed in public. Only Pat Smith's class goes from the funeral to the graveside . They carry flowers. The other children get into the waiting cars to return home. The students Mrs. Wright drives home are silent. She prefers that herself. The last stop is Marsha's house. Marsha slouches m the front seat and hesitates to get out of the car "He was just a boy," she bursts forth, "just a boy like Mike or Bruce. It could have been my brother, or a friend, or me. It scares me to think of it, but death can hit anybody out of the blue. A few days ago Doug was playing ball. Today he was buried. How can anyone be safe?" Mrs. Wright touches Marsha's arm "Death is unpredictable and often, as with Doug, we are unprepared for it. We have no warning. But we cannot live our lives in fear that death might strike us or someone we love. There would be no joy in playing or working if we were that fearful all the time. Death reminds us that we will all die, but its presence must not make us so timid that we are afraid to live. We can only be grateful to be alive. And, dear Marsha, one way of expressing that gratitude is to stand by those who suffer the pain of loss. See you tomorrow. We'll talk about this some more"

Mrs. Wright starts her class the next day with a reminder of the day past "I'd like to have your thoughts," she addresses her class, "on how we could be most helpful to Doug's family. They have suffered a deep loss and need our support. Does anyone know the family? Who was on the soccer team with Doug" They tell each other what they know about Doug's family, about his working parents and his two smaller brothers "The two little brothers are on the Little League soccer team. I played with Doug. I could be like a big brother, look out for them in a way," is Raymond's contribution. "I could just drop by and visit with his mother m the evenings. Murphys are practically neighbors down the street from us, and she likes to garden " Suggestions such as these spur other helpful ideas "You see," Mrs. Wright says, "it will be important to keep up the help over the weeks to come. Right now, everybody feels for the family. Soon we will all be concerned with our own daily affairs and we'll think less and less about Doug and his family. But, for them, healing will take a long time." "I have an idea," Bruce is excited. "Each first Monday of the month we'll talk about new ways to help Doug's family." Applause from the class. "Great suggestion, Bruce, let's make that a promise, and I'll be responsible for holding us to it. But now we have to get to work. Get your workbooks out and begin the composition on pages forty and following."


Children ac the capacity to love another person through their early attachment to the person who mothers them This early bond provides them with what Erikson has called "basic trust," that is, the ability to relate to the world in a positive, affirmative way. The mother-child relationship establis1 a pattern according to which children later model their relationships. Children who are fortunate enough to experience such a relationship start out with the confidence that life will be good and with the assurance that they can master the world. The roots of deep and lasting attachments lie in childhood. A person who has thus acquired an attitude of basic trust will not only be able to attach himself to another person, he will, generally, also be capable of living through the loss of a loved one and of establishing afresh another relationship once mourning is over.

In his work on separation anxiety, John Bowlby (4) makes a convincing case for attachment behavior being the corollary of separation anxiety. The fear of losing the mother figure or her love begins in childhood. Every mother knows that from about eight months through five years of age children show clinging behavior, ranging from a refusal to be put to bed at night to the demand, often following a joyful outing with playmates, "Pick me up, Mommy." Running back to the mother's open arms after exploring the outside world is a familiar pattern among small children. If the child does not find adequate assurances against his anxieties and also experiences the loss of parental love, the development of his personality can be severely dislocated. Bowlby describes three phases of separation anxiety : protest, despair, and detachment . Protest is characterized by outward distress-crying, searching for the lost person, accompanied by the strong expectation that the loved person will soon return. Despair is a slow withdrawal by the child in which he makes few demands on his environment but mourns the lost person. Detachment is an expression by the child of renewed interest in his surroundings with, however, diminished interest in attaching himself to a substitute person. Breaking through the wall of protection the child has built around himself during the phase of detachment requires both love and skill, and time must pass before he can regain the confidence to attach himself anew.

In our study of the reactions children had to the story of the wolf and the seven goats we learned that the basic anxiety of being separated from the source of love and security permeates every age level and is more or less well-handled at different junctures in growing up. How a particular child will master the death of a friend or relative depends largely on how much anchorage his family and school environment has provided him. The sorrow will not be less for such a child nor will there be a cushion against sadness, but he will not ultimately lose his trust in life so easily, even when confronted with death.

1. Betteiheim, B ., The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York, Vintage Books, 1977, 73.
2. Goidreich, G., What is Death? The Answers in Children's Books. Hastings Center Report, Jan 1977, 18.
3. Rawlings, M., The Yearling. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967 (1938).
4. Bowlby, J., Separation Anxiety. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1960, 41; Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1 960, 15 ; Processes of Mourning. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1961, 42.
*Excerpts from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings are reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. Copyright 1938 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; copyright renewed 1966 Norton Baskin.

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