Help Students Understand Death

Having trouble talking about death with students? These resources can help.

Before I finished fifth grade, I knew six kids who’d died. Nikki, a foster baby who lived down the street, died of complications associated with AIDS. Another foster child, whose birth parents had broken her arms during a weekend visitation, died of complications from that trauma. Another girl’s leukemia was caught too late. A boy was thrown from a pickup truck window in a car wreck. A girl who was prone to grand mal seizures didn’t get medicine in time. A classmate drowned while swimming.

For each death that involved one of my schoolmates, the principal made an announcement over the public address system. His voice was somber. He told us that a student had died, giving the name and the grade. Our teachers encouraged us to make individual cards or to sign a giant one. There was no discussion. Death remained both completely intangible and altogether something to fear, because it was clear that even the teachers were afraid to talk about it.

I turned to books for answers. I read Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. I wanted to understand death and why it happened to people my age.

In high school, I knew a boy whose father had been shot years earlier in the hallway of their apartment. The boy was 7 at the time. His mother had to figure out how to explain the shooting to him. “She did a good job,” I remember him saying as a teen, “but how do you explain that to a kid?”

As an adult, I struggle with explaining death, especially without venturing into religion. Schoolchildren regularly die—sometimes violently—in cities around the country. When the Newtown, Conn., school shooting was widely reported in the news, caregivers and educators had to find ways to talk to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook, addressing both violence and death.

I also found that Duck, Death and the Tulip, a picture book by Wolf Erlbruch (reprinted 2011), can help caregivers and educators talk about death—as well as acceptance of those who are different. Duck notices Death (who wears a dress and uses male pronouns) following her. When Duck confronts Death and asks if he’s come to do something to her, Death says he’s been close to her all of her life. Duck decides Death isn’t so bad, and they do things together: going in the pond, sitting in a tree. They discuss life, death and the possibility of an afterlife. Near the end of the story, Duck says she is cold; later, Death notices her heart has stopped. He carries her to a river, places a tulip on her chest and lets her float.

I wish this book, with its gender-bending Death character, had been around in my childhood. It’s warm, and while it answers no questions about death, it clearly positions dying as a stage of life. It’s a tool to keep on the classroom bookshelf for children to approach when they’re ready or after they experience the death of someone they know.

Children will surely relate to Duck—and perhaps be calmed by how Duck accepts the presence of Death, even befriends him, once she becomes aware of him. Death doesn’t have to be a mysterious, fear-inducing event. We need to be able to talk about it in the classroom, outside of a major event like the Newtown shooting.

Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.

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