Ethan started opening up at school to his friends and teachers about his dad and his death. He really hadn’t said anything or even wanted to talk about Mike at school in the past. And it all started with a book the class read a few months ago.
In this story, the main character, a little boy, notices changes in his grandfather with whom he lives. The grandfather becomes very sickly, unable to get out of bed and his personality changes dramatically.
It was while discussing the grandfather’s illness and its manifestations that Ethan spoke up for the first time. “Sounds like what happened to my dad,” he said. He then started talking about how Mike was a great dad – until Ethan was about three years old. Then he started to get mean and yell at Ethan for no reason. And how Ethan, as a four or five year old boy, couldn’t wake his dad up, and how Ethan rarely saw Mike get off the couch in the basement. Ethan talked about his memories of hearing about his dad’s death while at school and the funeral and how he felt about his dad’s passing.
The reading teacher, who was Ethan’s first grade teacher when Mike died, was stunned that he was opening up. The class was quiet as they listened respectfully. One little girl came up to the teacher afterward to tell her she understood Ethan a little bit better after his story.
The teacher called me that night to tell me this story – and to see what she should do if/when he opens up again. “Let him talk!” I said. “It’s good that he’s comfortable with his classmates and you. He needs to get these thoughts and emotions and feelings OUT!”
She completely agreed and was very happy to hear that I was supportive of allowing Ethan to talk.
Fast forward to this week.
Ethan’s school lets out around 2:15. I teach until 3:15, then have a 40 minute commute, so Ethan attends an after-school program run by the local parks and rec department. He’s been in the program, with the same leaders, since he started at the school. They’re familiar with our situation and Mike’s death. And they’ve been very supportive and understanding as we’ve gone through milestones and anniversaries.
Apparently, Ethan decided to open up to a group of kids this week. I’m not sure what triggered his desire to talk about his dad’s death, or even what EXACTLY he said. But the leaders of the program freaked out.
I arrived shortly after the “incident.” The leader pulled me into a nearby room to talk privately. “Ethan was talking about his dad’s death today,” she said.
“Yeah…” I said.
“And it freaked out the kindergarteners. So we told him not to,” she said.
“Not to what?” I asked.
“Talk about how his dad is dead.”
“But that’s his reality. His dad IS dead. It’s not right or wrong, here or there. Mike is dead,” I said.
“Yes, but we don’t want the younger kids getting scared that their parents will die,” the leader continued. “So we asked him to talk to us and not the other kids if he wants to talk about his dad’s death.”
“But the kids’ parents ARE going to die. We’re ALL going to die. Ethan just learned the lesson earlier than most kids,” I said. “It’s healthy and natural, and I’m encouraging him opening up about Mike’s death if he wants or needs to.”
“He can talk about it with me or Miss B, but not the other kids,” the leader said. “It scares them.”
“So you told him NOT to talk about death?”
“Well, he can talk to us, just not the other kids.”
“But the other kids can talk about their moms and dads?”
“Of course. And Ethan can talk about you and his sister and his grandma. But not his dad.”
“Do you see a problem with that?” I asked, as politely as I could but starting to get really irritate.
“No. Death scares the kids.”
“Yes, and this is the life Ethan lives. He lost his dad and his grandpa. The kid has experienced more death than some adults I know. This is his reality, and he needs to be able to talk about it.”
“Well, I just don’t think he should talk to the kids about it.”
I grabbed Ethan and walked out of the school. Over last few days, I’ve tried to steer conversations with Ethan toward finding out what happened, without asking directly. He hasn’t mentioned anything nor seemed phased by what happened. The after-school teachers also haven’t mentioned it again – but I grab Ethan and leave as quickly as possible. I’m not really interested in small talk with them right now.
Would you be as pissed off as I am about this request to NOT talk about his dad?