In Montessori we aim to give children the information they need to understand the world at their stage of development, as well as provide the tools they will need to thrive in this world.
When your child asks you about death or they experience the death of something or someone, here are 6 things you can do: be honest, give practical information, read books together, explain any spiritual beliefs without ambiguity, share your feelings, and allow the child to say goodbye.
1. Be honest.
Explain death in an honest, direct, and non-emotional way. Death is a natural part of life. This is the frame of mind to be in when having discussions with your child about it.
Avoid using phrases like “they left”, “they went to sleep”, “they flew away”. This is misleading because if someone dies they cannot do those things and the child could be confused as to why they don’t just come back or wake up. They may develop fears of sleeping or of loved ones leaving and not coming back.
Until your child asks you for more information, you don’t need to explain why someone died. This can lead to confusion or fear about illness, ageing, accidents, etc. When they do ask for more information, be truthful and factual about what you can share. Avoid general phrases like, “when someone gets old/sick/hurt..” and refer specifically to the reasons why this one animal or person died.
A simple and brief explanation for when an animal or a person dies:
Their body can no longer sleep, eat, walk, or talk. The animal/person does not return. Their body is then buried in the ground (for example) and we keep the memories we had of them when they were alive.
A simple and brief explanation for when a plant dies:
The plant can no longer grow. It cannot take water from the soil or make food from the sunlight. When a plant dies it becomes the soil and helps other plants to grow.
2. Give practical opportunities to learn about death and impermanence before it happens.
A glass when it breaks is no longer a glass and the pieces can no longer be used. Every time something breaks without the chance of being repaired is a lesson you can share with your child on impermanence and fragility. It is important to let them know that things breaking is a natural part of life, even when it was an accident. It is not a negative thing or a positive thing. It is just what happens sometimes. Material objects, like our physical bodies, are not as important as the things we do with them while we have them.
If you happen to have plants or pets at home, this is an opportunity to teach your child about physical needs and lifespans. If a plant gets too much water or not enough water they will die. The lifespan of a gerbil is about 2 years. It is our job as caretakers of our plants and pets to take care of them, love them as well as we can to give them a happy life, and enjoy our time with them. This healthy experience with life and death provides a reference for children when facing other kinds of loss.
3. Share age-appropriate books with them about death.
Even if your child has not known someone who has died, they may already know about death and have questions. Reading books with your child a good way to talk about it and help them understand more. Having them available at the child’s level allows them to open the book and revisit this topic whenever it’s on their mind. Children often want to repeat the same conversations with you about death (or any other topic) to confirm what they know.
The Goodbye Book
Written and illustrated by Todd Parr
view on Amazon HERE
This is a book for young toddlers which could be about death or just the emotions you feel when someone goes away, as it doesn’t mention anything specific about death. It is about a fish in a fishbowl who misses his friend. He is sad at times and happy at other times when he remembers all the fun they had together.
written by Cece Meng, illustrated by Jago
view on Amazon HERE
This book is my favorite of all three of these. It is about an old turtle, who we never meet directly in the story, but we hear about the different things he did during his life and all the ways that his friends will “always remember” him. It is beautifully written and illustrated.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
Written by Bryan Mellonie, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
view on Amazon HERE
This book is fascinating for older toddlers and preschoolers. It is beautiful and honest. It talks about how death is the natural end to life and describes the lifetime and death of things like plants and insects.
4. Share your spiritual belief about death, if you have one.
When sharing a religious belief with a child, it is important to pair it with the physical explanation of death as well. If you only offer a spiritual explanation about death it can be confusing and even scary to the child who does not yet fully understand the abstract meaning.
5. Share your feelings
When your child shows their emotions regarding death (fear, sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, or no emotion at all) we want to validate and acknowledge their feelings. Talking about the child’s thoughts, translating the child’s emotions into words, and teaching them how to express their feelings in a safe space, are all very important. Offering hugs, giving a pillow to hit when angry, allowing for alone time, having a visual or verbal cue for strong emotions, offering to draw feelings, are possible ways of teaching children how to express their emotions.
EQUALLY IMPORTANT is translating your own feelings and modelling how you process your own grief. It’s okay to cry in front of your child. It’s okay to explain why you are feeling upset. You are showing your child through example that their feelings are real and teaching them how to manage them.
6. Allow your child to say goodbye.
When a person dies funerals or celebrations of life can be overwhelming to a child. In preparation for this, we can explain to them what will happen and what to expect. In addition to this, find a time when the child can say goodbye to the loved one with just you. You can sing a special song, write a note, leave flowers, or some other kind of simple ceremony.
For pets or plants or even for a bug found outside, the child can be included in a small ritual for saying goodbye if they want to. These experiences all help to normalise death and form a healthy relationship with it.
This blog post was difficult for me to write, but I am glad that I have done it now. Considering death from a child’s perspective and practicing the ways to discuss it without fear is helping me in my own process of grief and acceptance. I know that I have to do the work to heal my feelings about death first so that I can give my daughter a healthy understanding of this part of life when she starts asking about it.
In 2019 my mother died suddenly at the age of 44. One year later I became pregnant with my first baby, a daughter, who I named Jennifer after my mom. Keeping her memory present in my home and sharing her photos with Jennie is very special and important to me, but it has also been painful and complicated. A book that has given me strength is Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman.
I share this because I know that understanding this healthy approach to death is one thing, and putting it into practice is quite another when you have experienced painful losses. I hope that this information will be helpful and that we can become stronger and in turn be better models and teachers to our little ones.
For more information I recommend this blogpost: Helping Young Children Cope with Death: We talk to Lead Guide Jennifer Schwartz about how Montessori education can help young children process the loss of a loved one It shares stories about how children have dealt with loss and how their Montessori teacher supported them through their process of grief.
Thank you for reading. I hope this post has provided some helpful information. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions.