Don’t talk about death – it scares the children (aka: f-you after-school teachers!)

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.

Until now.

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?

5 thoughts on “Don’t talk about death – it scares the children (aka: f-you after-school teachers!)

  1. I’d be pretty pissed. I mean, I started having panic attacks about death when I was about 12, so yes, another kid talking about his parent dying would’ve probably sent me into a panic attack. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t do it. They’re going to hear about death from somewhere at some point and parents and teachers need to be prepared to calm their children’s fears. E shouldn’t have to stop talking about his dad when it’s obviously so very helpful for him to finally be expressing himself and talking about it openly. Unless he gets mean about it – like telling all the kids their parents are going to die soon – then he shouldn’t be restricted like that. Just my two cents.

  2. I’d be seriously pissed. To the point of pulling my kid out of the program pissed. Death happens. Death sucks. Death is reality. They have no right to shut him down about his dad’s death.

  3. I would definitely be pissed if somebody told one of my kids they couldn’t talk about a parent just because he/she was dead. Yes, kids can get scared talking about death. But it’s also a good opportunity for them to talk about those feelings at home. Kara came home from school last week and talked about how her friend Lilly was sad about her grandpa passing away. Kids need to be able to talk about these things.

  4. Hell yes I would be pissed. My husband died when our daughter was 2 1/2 months old. This is her reality, and I don’t think other kids are too good or too innocent to be exposed to a reality she lives everyday. This is our children’s reality. As for the other kids being afraid something might happen to their parents, I consider that a luxury. I wish my daughter had the luxury of fearing something would happen to her dad, instead of living with the fact that it already has. And they think those kids are afraid?! What about the kids who know first hand the pain of losing one parent, and the fear they have of losing the only one they have left? It sounds like they don’t want to deal with these other kids, or are worried about what other parents would say. That’s their problem, not yours.

  5. Holy delusional, Batman.

    Sure, let’s pretend that death doesn’t exist by not talking about it. That will make it go away. Lalalalalala…I can’t hear you, death, so you can’t hurt me.

    It’s these people who will crash and burn when it’s their turn to look death in the eye, while Ethan will have a healthier relationship with a natural part of life.

    And yes, I’d be pissed.

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