Using nature to talk about mortality with kids

I wonder how the little Guillemot is? 

I think it was a guillemot anyway. It was standing forlornly at the edge of the water so still I thought it was an upstanding stone when I first caught sight of it in the distance. But as I walked nearer I realised it was a little bird. It was bedraggled and saturated and appeared to be shivering.

I guessed it had probably got exhausted and waterlogged. But had managed to come ashore with the tide.

What to do?

Leave it to recover in calm and solitude, or take it somewhere? The stress of being captured can often create further injury or cause them to die of shock anyway.

It was always a dilemma when we found exhausted or injured wild things. They rarely survived as a result of our attentions but the children always wanted to take them home and cosset and cuddle them back to health as we did them! None of which does wild things any good usually but it’s very hard to explain that to a child.

Nestlings were the worst. The children were adamant that they could save them with human ministrations, not understanding that most of them wouldn’t make it – human comforts are rarely what they need.

Living in the country animal fatalities were regularly witnessed. Another corpse in the tideline or a remnant of a fox’s meal, as well as farming, were opportunities for study and discussion and also conversations about the natural course of life.

These events, and the passing of pets, are a good opportunity to talk to kids about these difficult issues – although not difficult really if you make them a natural part of examining life.

More difficult when they’re not talked about and come as a terrible shock.

Mortality is usually conveniently hidden away like a taboo. But it is far better that it is confronted honestly, that children understand about the cycle of life, that we are sad and bereft for some time after losing someone or something, and that this passes, new aspects of life flood in and make us feel better and we survive and move forward.

Children are very matter-of-fact. They deal far better with honest answers than with cover ups. They see through those. They can only trust us if they know we’re honest. That way they’ll believe us when we say that we can recover from grief and loss, rather than thinking this is just another grown up lie.

The loss of pets or things in the wild and natural world provide good opportunities for us to talk about both the living and the passing of life, not in a morbid way. But in a matter-of-fact way with the children. And we shouldn’t shy away from it.

Had little children been with me when I saw the guillemot they would no doubt have wanted to do something about it. But I thought it best to leave it to find itself somewhere quiet to recover as it looked reasonable robust. After I’d had a good look at it – a rare treat to be so close.

But it popped into my mind occasionally throughout the day as I wondered about its fate.


10 thoughts on “Using nature to talk about mortality with kids

  1. Our children had to confront mortality very early on. A friend of ours lost their three year old boy last year and their frankness in questioning it all leaves you in tears sometimes. You listen to them telling others about him and what happened to his body after he died and it’s all so matter of fact.
    They’ve always understood dying. My mum died years before they were born so they’ve always known that Grandma was very poorly and doctors couldn’t help her.
    We also keep chickens and every so often a fox will do the rounds. They understand it is life – the fox is trying to survive. I think it helps kids to know that life gets ugly sometimes. I was probably 11/12 before death hit our family and it hurt so much more because no one had ever explored it with me. I knew about death, obviously, but the actual impact of it – it terrified me.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share your very moving comment, Bernice. I agree, they need to understand these sadnesses come and equally they go too and that will help reassure them. All the best

  2. We’ve lost so many pets over the years from rabbits, Guinea pigs to chooks and our beloved 15 year old blue heeler. But I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s taught my kids so much, about love, responsibility, important lessons and life in general. Wonderful post.

  3. I agree with you, hard though it may be you just have to leave alone and let nature/fate/twenty ton block take its course. My dad (retired GP) gave me a good lesson in mortality by taking me around a funeral director’s mortuary when I was young so I could witness dead body. The matter of fact way that the funeral director wrote the identifying number on the corpses arm with a biro left a lasting impression that dead bodies are not the people they were when alive and that that are just bones and flesh and soulless. (Start you own blog, John! mmmmm)

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