It was a beautiful Spring day. I was in front of my Grade Five class, talking about one of my favourite teams, the Toronto Blue Jays. We were all excited because the team was doing well and we started to talk about who had been to what was “Sky Dome” at the time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a student reaching out to another one, in a consoling way. I noticed the student, we’ll call him, ‘David’, quietly crying at his desk. Of course, everyone around him noticed and started to ask him what was wrong, reaching out to him. He couldn’t respond. I asked him what I could do and he opted to leave the room with a friend and go for a walk in the school. We agreed to speak in private at recess time.
Two years earlier, before I had arrived at the school, David’s father had died of cancer. I had taught his older brother and knew his incredible mother who was parenting four children on her own.
So when we met at recess, I asked him if someone had said something to upset him, specifically, had I? His reply surprised me. “No,” he said, “I just realized that I’ll never have a chance to go to a Blue Jays game with my dad. And that reminded me of my soccer games and how he’ll never see me play again, either.” He thought he was being stupid… after all, his father had been dead for two years. I was shocked that a child could think that he was supposed to be “over it by now”. I assured him that as he grew older, there would be many new realizations and that loving someone means that it can hurt all over again. And that was normal.
Of course, I called David’s mother and asked to speak with her after school, letting her know that he had become upset during a class. When we spoke, David’s mother had another surprising piece of information for me, “I can’t believe it. That’s the first time he’s cried since his father died.”
We don’t know what children are thinking about dying and death. We don’t know if they have any idea that what they’re feeling after someone they love dies, is called grief and it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. Research shows that parents don’t know how to talk to their kids about death and usually don’t bring up the topic until someone or a pet dies. Then, after the initial conversations, the subject is dropped and children get a sense that it’s a taboo subject. Research also shows that unhealthy grief from childhood can manifest itself as depression and anxiety in adulthood.
So, when I learned about the concept of C.A.N.D.Y. Café, I had to get involved. To engage in a proactive movement to help children navigate this critical part of life, just makes so much sense. Knowing that nowhere in the Ontario Curriculum are their Expectations for death and grief to be addressed, I believe it has to happen somewhere. Learning about how animals die as part of Science class or about leaves dying in the Fall, isn’t the same as what we’re talking about here . Creating Awareness and Normalizing Death for Youth is exactly that… normalizing means allowing open discussion and not ducking the topic. By including parents at the same event, holding a Death Café for them, we are striving to improve understanding and communication among parents and children, about death and grief. Hopefully, we can help turn the tide when it comes to talking about these subjects in Canadian society.