Teaching children about death and dying is never easy. Children are so innocent and look at the world around them with interest, excitement and amazement. Perhaps exposing a child to the concept of death is difficult because it is so very difficult for us.
Several weeks ago, I telephoned a friend and, although she answered my call, she said she had to call me back because she was at the checkout counter of the pet store, purchasing a goldfish for her daughter. When she called back, I asked a lot of questions. My first question was why she was buying another goldfish, since her daughter already had one.
Well, apparently the fish hadn’t been feeling well and was floating upside down on its side. My friend said she was ready for new counter space without a fish bowl, but her husband thought it would be better just to replace the fish while Katie was napping.
So my next question was … why? That would have been a perfect opportunity to teach Katie about life cycles, beginnings and endings, loss and grieving. Katie’s dad wanted to protect her joyous spirit and spare her from becoming upset, for which he is to be admired.
Teaching children about death and dying is never easy. Children are so innocent and look at the world around them with interest, excitement and amazement. Perhaps exposing a child to the concept of death is difficult because it is so very difficult for us. Often, when relatives are very ill and pass on, we are told it is better this way; they are out of pain. Nevertheless, their passing leaves us with deep pain in our own hearts.
Teaching a life cycle can be a wonderful, educational experience to provide to a young child. You can explore outside with an ant nest, watching for the queen ant and her workers. You can look for cocoons and caterpillars that evolve into butterflies. This exploration of nature also is a great opportunity to teach that all creatures big and small have homes and families. That realization might actually help a child learn to be kind to all in the animal kingdom, instead of attempting to step on ants and spiders.
If you’re interested in teaching life cycles, but not the outdoor nature type, you can purchase some inexpensive guppies, which are low maintenance and as hardy as goldfish, with the male being very colorful. The bonus is that guppies birth live babies, which is fascinating. I spent many of my childhood years with a tank for guppies in my bedroom. I learned responsibility with the changing of the water and daily feedings. I saved my allowance to buy fresh plants to oxygenate the water. If several fish are too much, consider buying a single goldfish or a beautiful beta.
With three children, I have lots of pet stories. Throughout the years, we had a wonderful family dog (Sophie), an adopted greyhound, a black cat, multiple rabbits, saltwater and freshwater fish, hermit crabs, a guinea pig, hampsters, Shelly the turtle, a hedgehog, an iguana and a flying gecko. I am not necessarily an animal lover, but each pet found its way into our home and into our hearts. As each pet lived out its life, it was loved and cared for by my children. When life cycles ended, we all gathered together to hold a “memory” service, burying most of them in our wooded backyard. That all was part of the process.
As difficult as any ending can be, it is helpful for a child to learn about life as it comes and goes. Someone once said it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Katie is happy with her new goldfish, unknowing that it was replaced, but this time when the fish floats, her parents said they are ready to help her learn about life.
Diana Boggia, M.Ed., is a parenting educator in Stark County, Ohio, whose column appears weekly in The Repository. Send your child-rearing questions to FamilyMatters@cantonrep.com or The Repository, c/o Family Matters, 500 Market Ave. S, Canton OH 44702.