Kindergarten Reflections on Death & Dying

I have wanted to write on the topic of death and dying for some time. You may think it strange that this is the topic of choice for a Kindergarten teacher. But, spend a day with young children, and you will find that the games they play, the scenarios they reenact, and the stories they tell revolve in some way around birth giving and dying.

Play is one thing, but some people may feel that these topics should not be discussed in a formal way. They may scare the child.

One thing is true—at five years old most children are already aware of death and have encountered it in the loss of a family member or pet. We do children a disservice if we make assumptions about their intellectual and emotional capacity to talk about death and dying alongside conversations about life and birth giving. 

December in Houston is finally the season where the world is changing rapidly around us. In fact, most things around us are dying. In our study of nature, the Kindergarteners have learned about the death of leaves on the trees, the decay and dying matter that fungi consume, and the fact that many insects will reach the end of their life as the days grow shorter and colder. 

This week three girls in my class brought in a monarch butterfly from the garden. The bright orange coupled with the black and white pattern of its wings stood out in the carefully cupped hands of the oldest in the group. I could see them arguing quietly as they approached. The child holding the butterfly asked, “Why is it not moving?” 

I responded very simply, “It’s dead.” 

The girls peered down at the unmoving butterfly in silence. One said very quietly, “I think I see the wings moving.” 

One of the others said, “No, no it’s just the wind.” 

And the last finished with, “It’s dead.” 

They moved away in silence, pondering.

This was not the first conversation I have had with young students about death. My first year at TSCS a student told me that animals did not die; they just fall asleep. I could sense his earnestness to believe that animals really did just sleep. That innate sense that death is unnatural to us.

But I gently corrected him, and he did not argue or become upset. Children are so wonderfully open to the possibilities of mystery and the unknown.

We live in a world that longs for the mystery of the ultimately Unknowable God, but does not know where to seek for Him. We do everything in our power to keep ourselves from thinking about the Final Things. “Death, for most people,” writes Seamus O’Mahony in his book The Way We Die Now, “is a rumour; something that happens to others, far away.”

He writes about the lengths most people will go for one more breath. One more test, one more procedure, one more pill . . . anything to keep you from the “Difficult Conversation” and the realization that there is an ending.

When teaching young children history, death is a perennial topic of conversation. Students want to know if the famous men and women we are learning about have died and how long ago.

I remember one particular activity in which we brainstormed events that happened in their personal history – past, present, and future. I asked for examples of future events and received expected answers in response: go to college, get married, have a baby. And then one child said it: we will die. There was silence. I nodded. 

“Yes, that is true. Everyone dies.”

Another child said, “Sometimes kids die.”

I nodded again and felt obligated to very quickly add: “But, God willing all of you will live a long, long life.”

Nowhere is the topic of death and life more prevalent than in our Atrium. There is a particular presentation given to children in their second year in the Atrium (typically 4-6 year olds) that uses the imagery of wheat to symbolize the mysteries of life and death.

Pots used for the presentation contain a dormant seed, a sprouting seed, a full-grown wheat stalk, and a dead stalk with the seeds preparing to drop from the parent plant. For adults, the imagery is very clear. The end is not the end; death is the seed that brings forth everlasting life.

For children, this is the beginning of the mystery. For some who have experienced loss, it may give them words and images to understand their experience more fully. For those who have not experienced death, it is an introduction appropriate to their level of understanding.

This is a presentation we give in the spring semester leading up to the death and resurrection of Our Lord. But, the pondering of the mystery begins now in the mystery of the Incarnation and our preparation for the Nativity. We cannot speak about the birth of Jesus Christ without speaking also of the continuation of that saving work in His death and resurrection. 

This is what we proclaim to the smallest ones: that with life there is also death and after that, like seeds falling from the dead wheat stalk, life again. Two sides of the coin – the very same Lord born in Nazareth will very soon hang on the Cross, and in the same breath we will proclaim: Christ is risen! Life again! 

Featured Art: Painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1887