Exploring death through story with young children

Death is a difficult subject to tackle with young children. We tend to avoid it, where possible, for fear of frightening or confusing the children, or because we feel that we will not be able to give satisfactory answers to the sort of questions children are likely to ask. But life has its dark side — not only death and bereavement, but also broken relationships, injustice, suffering. Children will meet these in due course, if they haven’t already encountered them, and they need the opportunity to share their experiences, and to voice their anxieties and questions. They need to be aware that such situations are part of the experience of being human, and that trying to find meaning in this sort of experience is a perpetual quest.

Introducing the subject

If we accept that death should not be a taboo area, but should be explored in the Primary classroom, there is still the problem of how to introduce the subject. Do we wait for the situation to arise spontaneously and use the recent death of a grandparent, or the demise of the school hamster, as a starting point? Or do we gently encourage a discussion about death where it fits naturally into the curriculum, and at a time when children are not so likely to be emotionally involved? I think there is a place for both approaches as long as the subject is handled with extreme sensitivity. For example, a child who returns to school after a death in the family is more likely to be helped by a private conversation with the teacher than by a class discussion.

Using Stories

Children can be encouraged to explore a wide variety of human experiences through stories. Discussion arising from a carefully chosen story provides an opportunity for sharing thoughts, exploring emotions, and asking questions. Sharing a story brings people together as each listener identifies with the characters in the story and shares their thoughts, feelings and actions. Although children become involved in a story, yet they remain outside it: a sensitive situation like death and bereavement can be explored from a safe distance because it is happening to someone else in a different context. Stories about the death of animals or people can be used with individual children, or fitted into the general pattern of classroom story telling.

Some books about Death

Choosing a suitable story depends ultimately on the teacher’s individual preference and intimate knowledge of the children. Books for young children which can be used to encourage discussion on the theme of death might include books about plant and animal life cycles, books about animals dying, and books about the death of people.


The subject of death arises naturally in projects on plants or animals or the seasons. Plant and animal life cycles have their dead stages: the winter twig, the grain of wheat, the cress seed, the chrysalis. Dandelion and Conker are two books with simple text that can help very young children to become aware of and talk about the pattern of the life cycle. The photographs of the dandelion plant and the horse-chestnut tree through the different seasons of the year help to show that death is a natural part of the life cycle and is closely associated with the seasonal rhythm.

Death of animals

The death of a much-loved pet can be a very upsetting experience. When Violet Died is about the death of a pet bird, but it is a story which links death with new life, and leads from sadness to hope. When Violet dies the children have a funeral. The funeral is rather fun, but afterwards Amy cannot bear to look at the empty cage. “Nothing lasts forever”, she says sadly. Eva strokes the cat, who is expecting kittens. She starts thinking. If she keeps one of the kittens and it grows up and has kittens and one of those kittens has kittens . . . Maybe nothing lasts for ever, but Eva knows a way to make things last a long, long time!

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney tells of the thoughts and feelings of a little boy whose cat has just died. Children who have experienced the death of a pet will identify with his acute sense of loss. To help him overcome his grief, his mother suggests that he thinks of ten good things about his cat. He thinks of nine, but it isn’t until he helps father in the garden and talks about what happens to things in the ground, that he thinks of the tenth good thing. He still misses Barney but comes to accept his death and sees that, in a strange way, good can come of it.

Another book about the death of a pet is All Change. Percy, the school hamster, dies when Susie is in charge of him. She is not only upset by the death of a much-loved animal but terrified of getting into trouble as well. The teacher senses that Susie is more upset than the other children and takes her aside. They look together at a glass tank where caterpillars were kept. Now, they are dead-looking chrysalises hanging from twigs. One chrysalis has a crack and teacher and child watch together as a butterfly emerges. Words are unnecessary. Susie finds comfort as she sees the beautiful insect free itself from its dead, dry case, and because she is aware that her teacher knows how she is feeling . . . and cares.

The death of people

There are a number of books that deal with the death of a member of the family or a close friend. Discussing one of these stories can help children to come to terms with the grief and confused questioning that may arise when they come face to face with the experience of the death of someone close to them. The Day Grandma Died is about the death of the twins’ Grandma. The twins are very sad and ask questions like “Aren’t we going to see Grandma any more”? Their parents help them to understand that, in one way, Grandma is still with them. She taught them to cross the road, to love plants and animals, to care for others. These things have become woven into their lives: a bit of Grandma living on in them, and something to remember her by.

In My Grandson Lew, Lew wakes up in the night and announces that he misses his Grandpa. Grandpa died four years ago when Lew was only two, so no one knew that Lew remembered his Grandpa at all. Lew and his mother share their memories of Grandpa and the love he brought to the family. “I miss him”, said Lew. “I do, too”, said his mother, “but you made him come back for me tonight by telling me what you remember”. Shared memories not only help to keep the memory of Grandpa alive, but draw Lew and his mother into a new and deeper relationship.

Children need to voice their confused thoughts and hidden fears about death as they try to make sense of what they see and hear. Focusing on a story is one of the best ways of creating an opportunity for discussion. Stories like those suggested here, can help to extend and enrich experience and to deepen understanding.

  • Dandelion, Barrie Watts, A & ~I Black (Stopwatch Books)
  • Conker, Barrie Watts, A & C Black (Stopwatch Books)
  • When Violet Died, Mildred Kantrowitz, Bodley Head
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, Judith Viorst, Collins
  • All Change, Pamela Rogers, Hamish Hamilton (Gazelle Book)
  • The Day Grandma Died, Jan Selby, Church Informa- tion Office (Benjamin Books)
  • My Grandson Lew, Charlotte Zolotow, World’s Work.

Other books suitable for use in RE are suggested in Rachel Gregory’s

  • 30 Stories for Infant RE. Available from T.M.R.S., Russell House, 14 Dunstable Street, Ampthill, Beds. MK45 2JT. Price £1.60
Back to top