Helping Young Children Cope with Death: The Montessori Approach

We talk to Lead Guide Jennifer Schwartz about how Montessori education can help young children process the loss of a loved one

Melissa McElhill

Montessori educators seek to guide children through all of life's challenges while giving them as much independence as their age and experience will allow. Even when it comes to coping with a topic as complicated as death, Montessori education can help give children space to process the loss of a loved one.

Jennifer Schwartz has been there. As a lead guide at Guidepost Montessori West Loop, Chicago, Schwartz has over 20 years of teaching experience. She has also learnt from her own personal experience of losing her father at a very young age. Many people who discover Montessori later in life find it difficult to grapple with the idea of being honest with children about death, says Schwartz, but something that Montessori educators and parents agree on is that it is ultimately more compassionate to tell children the truth.

I'll begin by saying that I am very comfortable with death

My dad passed away when I was four years old, and a few years later, my mother became a funeral director. So death has always been a part of my life. While I never lived in a funeral home, we always communicated very openly as a family. I grew up knowing that death happens — that everything has a beginning and an end, and that's just the way it is. That's not to say there aren't any tragic deaths, or that you shouldn't take the time to grieve a loss. But having that underlying understanding — that there's a time we're here and a time we're not — has helped keep me grounded over the years.

In the early days of my teaching career, I had a four-year-old girl in my class whose father passed away. I had become very close with Jessica and her mother, and was able to draw on my own experience as I helped them deal with their profound loss. I also learned so much about how children deal with death during that time. Looking back on it, it was interesting to see things from both sides: as a child and as an adult. Helping Jessica's mother deal with her emotions was really helpful and clarifying, and kind of mind altering too, because it helped me understand what my own mother had gone through at a time when I was too young to comprehend what was happening. So that's a little bit I of why I think I have that, you know, quote, "expertise" when it comes to dealing with loss.

Something we need to remember is that children grieve differently to adults

Going through that whole process taught me a lot about how children process grief, especially children who lose someone at a really young age. Adults tend to go through a grieving period when somebody dies. It's difficult to describe, but usually, when adults get to the end of their grieving period, their hearts don't hurt quite as much. Over the years, the initial, acute pain associated with their loss morphs into a dull ache. You think about the people you've lost, and you love and miss them, but you essentially move on, whereas children who remember their departed parents grieve at different times in their lives. Graduating from kindergarten might be a big grief experience, because dad can't be there for you. It might be a grief experience when you graduate high school, because your dad would have been so proud of you. So, children's grief tends to be less sharp at the onset, but it sticks around a lot longer; and the processing continues well into their adult years.

Our classroom pet died recently, which was sad, but the experience offered the children an opportunity to process loss in a safe, nurturing space

A few months ago, our classroom fish, Mr. Rainbow, wasn't doing very well. I then arrived one morning to find that he had died. When the children arrived, many of them noticed his absence from the tank, and I invited them to come and sit with me on the rug so that I could talk them through what had happened. I was gentle but honest. I told the children that everything has a life cycle, and that Mr. Rainbow was getting older, as fish do. I explained that he died because his body stopped working. I then gave them the opportunity to see Mr. Rainbow, as he'd been perfectly preserved, to help them understand the situation and to say goodbye.

As you can imagine, the atmosphere in the classroom was rather heavy and dismal. But after the first child asked a question, the rest came flooding in: Why did he die? Am I going to die? Why did my grandmother die? Why do bodies stop working? Why can't doctors heal us all the time? It precipitated a long conversation between the children and me about how bodies break and heal, and how sometimes they break and then can't heal. A child said his grandfather had died of cancer, which led to a discussion about how sometimes doctors can help us and sometimes they can't.

I let the children ask as many questions as they wanted to in order to allay any fears they might have had; and when the conversation naturally ended, I told them that I was going to carry on with my work, but if anyone wanted to stay on the rug and think about Mr. Rainbow, they were welcome to do so. Every child is different, and during such a rapid period of growth, children have mornings where they might already be struggling with their emotions, so I wanted to make sure that no one felt pressured to act in a certain way. Some children got on with their work straight away; some took a few minutes to approach their work, and some sat on the rug a little longer. Some of the children wanted to see Mr. Rainbow, and some didn't. All behaviors were understood, and all children were supported in the way they needed to be supported. That's the beauty of the Montessori environment.

I recommend all teachers introduce a classroom pet that will pass away during the three-year cycle

In Montessori schools for young children, we have three-year cycles. So children who enter the Children's House at three years old will leave at six years old. If a teacher introduces a fish with a lifespan of one to two years, the children in her class will have the opportunity to experience grief and loss but without the devastatingly high stakes involved in losing a friend, family member, or beloved household pet.

I've had turtles and bearded dragons, fish, hamsters, and guinea pigs, and they're all lovely in their different ways. The more interactive, the better, because the children can hold them and truly bond with them. Classroom pets allow children to develop Practical Life skills and empathy because they learn how to care for something other than themselves. Granted, it is a little morbid, introducing a pet to children when you know the pet won't be around for very long, but I feel it my duty to help children learn about the mechanics surrounding death so that if a child does suffer a significant loss, it will be much more digestible.

Montessori education helps us move past our prejudices towards children

Many of us who find Montessori later in life find it difficult to grapple with the idea of being honest with children. We don't want to talk to children about potentially traumatic subjects like death, not just because we fear we may handle it incorrectly but because we want our children to remain innocent for as long as possible. Something that Montessori educators and parents tend to agree on, however, is that it is ultimately more compassionate in the long run to tell children the truth. We weigh up the child's developmental milestones and level of maturity, and then we give them as much information about serious topics without provoking trauma or unnecessary emotional turmoil.

I had a child way back when I was teaching daycare whose father frequently went on business trips. And one of the things he said before he left every time was, "Daddy always comes home." On his last business trip, he got into a car accident and died, and for one reason or another, the children were not allowed to go to the funeral. As their teacher, I could see that they felt confused about what had really happened. And as time passed, it became clear that they also felt lied to. I could empathize with their parents; their father wanted to reassure his sons that he would see them soon, and their mother did not want to upset them further by taking them to a potentially intimidating event. But following the rituals surrounding death helps us process loss, especially when a death comes so unexpectedly.

We always look to support our families by keeping them informed and by respecting their beliefs 

I think it's always good to keep the parents in the loop. When Mr. Rainbow was looking worse for wear, I wrote an email to all the parents letting them know I was going to talk to the children about the cycle of life. The children come from families of different faiths, and so I reassured the parents that while I was going to address the subject of death, I was not going to discuss life after death.

After our initial gathering to talk about Mr. Rainbow's passing, and all the children had gone home to talk about it with their parents, children came to school asking me questions about where Mr. Rainbow was. Is he in heaven? Has he been reincarnated? In order to respect the diversity of beliefs held by my children's parents, I replied with, "I really don't know. But you know what, that might be a good question to talk to your mom about or your dad about."

Jennifer Schwartz's tips for parents and caregivers

If young children ask you when you will die or when they will die, try not to react in an emotional way; remember that they are just trying to figure out how the world works. Calmly explain that all living things have a life cycle, and that the life cycle for humans is very long — sometimes more than 100 years. So while we can't tell exactly when someone will die, it's going to happen a long time from now. And by that time, they will have lived long, full, happy lives.

Whatever your belief system is, feel free to share that with your child. If you believe that you're going to see your parents or your grandparents again in heaven, go ahead and share that with them. If a child asks you what happens to people after they die, and you're aware of other faiths that offer different answers to that question, you can help develop empathy in your child by answering, "I believe [your belief system] but I'm not sure. And maybe you'll have a different belief when you get older." That's how I phrase pretty much anything that has to do with religion with my own children at home.

One thing I strongly recommend is to communicate as concretely as possible. If you say things like "passed on" or "not here anymore", you run the risk of being misunderstood by your child. Also, avoid using phrases like "eternal sleep" as it could instill a fear of sleeping in your child.

Remember that there comes a time in a child's development when they will ask questions about death. There's no avoiding it. And while telling children the truth may give rise to some tears and sleepless nights, the child who has is grounded in reality will suffer less, because his fears are not accompanied by anxiety brought on by lack of understanding.

Recommended books to read with your child

Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

The Memory Box by Joanna Rowland

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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