Death Themes in Literature for Children Ages 3-8

Article excerpt

"A book is a present you can open again and again!"

M. Engelbreit

Books represent gifts of learning for young children. Parents. teachers, and other caregivers of preschool children (ages three-eight) use hands-on experiential techniques whenever possible.|1~ These concrete methods match the young child's cognitive development.|2~ For some subjects. however, real experience is not always possible. In such cases, children's literature provides the next best opportunity for learning.|3,4~

Children's literature commonly is used in preschool to address concepts which are not possible to experience directly, or not desirable to experience directly.|5~ One area where direct experience is not always possible is death education. Thus, children's literature is recommended as an appropriate tool for addressing concepts of death education.|6,7~ Though real death experiences do exist for young children, they constitute different learning experiences than those taught through literature.

When a child experiences death directly, whether through death of a pet or a loved one, it is an emotional time and must be dealt with immediately. Adults should support, comfort, and help the child to express grief.|8~ When a child experiences death through a story, adults can offer a planned death education lesson in a more factual manner and a less threatening atmosphere.|9~


Some adults attempt to ignore death for themselves, and shield their children from it. Garanzini|10~ suggests this approach has negative effects:

"Attempts to shield children from the reality of death reinforces in them the perception that death is either not real, too frightening to examine or, worst of all, that the ending of life is not worth noting with respect and reverence. These unintended lessons are unhealthy . . . For the sake of a healthy . . . sound appreciation of the meaning of death, parents and teachers must face the topic realistically and naturally -- for themselves and for the children they teach."

Additionally, the imagination of a child often leads to far more fear and confusion than reality.|8,9,11,12~ Children are "excellent observers" but "poor interpreters."|10~

Preschool children, however, experience death almost daily. Death is a natural part of their lives, just as it is for adults.|13-15~ Death experiences for young children include stepping on insects, wilting flowers, television deaths in cartoons, movies, dramas, and news reports, death of pets, and death of loved ones from siblings to grandparents. A range of emotions can be evoked from these experiences. Yet even small deaths can have an enormous impact when children are assisted in learning from them.|10,16,17~ Through small deaths, children practice being able to bear unpleasant feelings, which is a precursor to mastering grief.|18~ Kubler-Ross|19~ believes the grief and fears experienced in childhood are best expressed in childhood. Parness|20~ warns the ultimate impact of unexpressed grief in childhood may not be apparent for years. The ability to successfully cope with death and to express grief is critical for healthy child development.|5,11,16,18,20-22~

Parents and teachers of preschool children rarely teach death education formally, but they frequently respond informally to death experiences brought up by children.|17~ In addition to responding to real death experiences, planned death education provides important opportunities to investigate information and feelings without having the strength of emotion attached to a real death experience. Effective death education must deal with feelings, factual information, open discussion of beliefs, and learning skills for resolving grief.|9~ Parents, teachers, and other adults can use these guidelines to teach children to cope with death.

Many children's books with death themes as well as literature on a child's understanding of death are available. Children's books offer variety in the way death is treated or presented. …