Fred Rogers Continues to Teach Us How to Help Children Deal with Death

I frequently reference Fred Rogers when I communicate with parents and educators about the best ways to support grieving children. The enduring value of his words and ways are always relevant to the conversation. Rogers' messages of love and of nurturing children are transcendent. No one can match Rogers' ability to share equal measures of joyful surprise, comfort, inclusiveness and compassion in every interaction he had with others. It is no wonder adults continue look to Rogers (now through his living legacy The Fred Rogers Company) for the kindest of words and best ways to talk with children about death.

Rogers taught us, "Most young children know something about death. They may have seen a dead bird or bug or had a pet who died. Also, they may have seen people on television die. Still, their notion of death is very limited and simplistic, and they probably have many misunderstandings. It's precisely because children don't understand what death is about that they need help from loving adults in talking about it."

Rogers' enduring message is clear, we need to be talking with children about a death that has happened. He directed his advice primarily to parents, but Rogers' call for open communication and clarity with children is a signal to the classroom teacher or caregiver. As educators, we know it is important to scaffold vocabulary development and provide opportunities for young children to construct greater and greater meaning. We must apply these and other teaching principles to bereavement support for children.

When a bereaved child returns to school following a death of someone close to them, your classroom may be in the only reliable place in their lives at that moment. You are still there. Their friends are there. And their desks, tools, books and (most importantly) the classroom routine are all still reassuringly right there as they left them. School is the grieving child's anchor. Home is severely disrupted, and the trusted adults at school may be the primary comforters and listeners equipped to offer the child any sense of agency in this crisis. Children often feel they cannot talk about their missing and confused feelings with family members at home, for fear of making them too sad. They learn to feel this very, very early. But if at school or in care they are able to ask their questions and talk openly about their fears and worries and sadness about the death, the grieving child is able move closer to understanding the death. To simply and clearly help a child clarify what has happened is a good beginning step on their grief journey.  Information can go a very long way for the return of a sense of agency for a grieving child.

Fred Rogers taught and modeled the skill set of talking to children about death with grace and care.  Learn more about how to do this by connecting to the link to The Fred Rogers Company:

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.