Kids Talking About Death

Last week my school took part in the Terry Fox Walk. I’m not sure how much everyone knows about Terry Fox but in a way oversimplified summary he was a young Canadian, who lost his leg to cancer in the 1980s. He had an artificial leg and set a goal to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He died before he could finish his “Marathon of Hope” but many schools across the country still participate in a walk and raise money for cancer research on his behalf. My explanation does not do it justice but I strongly suggest you look it up and there’s a great new video the Terry Fox Foundation put out this year as well.

Anyways, so our school starts the walk with an assembly where we watch the video about Terry Fox and then we’re on our way with a cause. After the walk, the 5-7 year olds in my class want to talk about Terry Fox dying and death in general.

As someone who has spent so much of the last bit of my life dealing with grief I am careful to not project that onto the kids I am constantly around. However, I also refuse to shy away from talking about death when it is naturally brought up by them. I think that would do them a disservice. Avoiding conversations about death, when they have questions or comments, perpetuates the idea that grief and death are a taboo topic when it really is a natural and unavoidable part of life. They shouldn’t be forced or taught to hide their emotions connected to death and they certainly shouldn’t grow into adults who have internalized those ideas. If they have questions or comments I’m going to do my best to respond and validate them.

I must say that I was both so humbled, proud, and full of hope by the conversation that stemmed from their little minds. It was so honest and raw. It gave me a perspective of the progression from their open minds as children to the closed minds we develop as adults. It gave me hope that if conversations can remain open that maybe their thinking can stay. It expressed their concerns and worries in such a true form. It demonstrated respect, care, maturity and an awareness for others that is inspiring.

Instead of describing the conversation in length I thought I would just write a few of the things they shared and my thinking behind it and hope that maybe it can be meaningful and insightful to you too.

“I got hit hard in the head once. It hurt a lot. But I know it didn’t hurt very much compared to someone who hurts from cancer. That is much worse. Nothing like getting hit in the head. That must hurt a lot.”

The fact that he acknowledged his pain but then openly admitted that it is still not comparable to someone else’s pain is huge. As adults, we don’t even often do that. We try to compare and compete so much when sometimes it’s better to just acknowledge that what the other person is going through is bad and that’s that.

“I am really sad that my aunt died last summer. I really miss seeing and playing with her. I have her picture that I keep in my backpack so I can see her face when I miss her a lot” She then proceeded to get the picture to share with the class and shared a memory of being pushed on the swing. She smiled as she talked about her aunt and the other kids were eager to listen and ask questions about what she was like.

I think for this child acknowledging and validating her grief was big for her. She was so happy to share the memory of her aunt and give it life again.

Child 1: (with a petrified expression) “We had to burn my grandma and she disappeared”

Child 2: “That’s how you make them into ashes. My mom says it doesn’t hurt because they died already. My family spread my uncle’s ashes. We all got to be together for it at the park.”

Child 3: “That sounds nice. Like peace.”

Child 2: “Ya it was.”

Child 1: “Oh, we spread the ashes too! I didn’t like it”

Child 3: “I guess it can be a bit scary too”

Child 1: “Ya, it was”

“I’m sad that Terry Fox died. I don’t like cancer. He was brave. He ran a lot on only 1 leg! That is hard and must hurt. It makes me feel like I can do big things too.”

Yes, they can do big things. They can have better, more honest conversations about death than most adults I know. They don’t shy away or become uncomfortable. They tell it like it is but are sensitive at the same time.  I know I am supposed to be the teacher but I’m very lucky to be in the presence of such sweet, caring minds that teach me.

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