Talking about death with young children: lessons from Sesame Street
Don’t you remember we told you? Mr Hooper died, he’s dead.
Oh, yes , I remember. I’ll give it to him when he comes back.
Big Bird, Mr Hooper’s not coming back.
Big Bird when people die they don’t come back…
Well, Big Bird they’re dead, they can’t come back.
When I was a child, I loved watching Sesame Street. I still find it delightful and love watching the old clips of Ernie in his bathtub, those weird telephone-discovering Martians that say yip, yip, yip…
But none come close to Big Bird. I watched in the days that Mr Snuffleupagus was still his imaginary friend and I loved the way that Snuffie could disappear from those pesky adults despite his size.
In 1982 Mr Hooper, who ran ‘Hooper’s Store’ died in real life and the producers of Sesame Street decided to acknowledge his death this very touching scene (below). I don’t recall ever seeing this episode as a child, but I remember Mr Hooper and remember Big Bird having trouble saying his name. It was during the Dying To Know Day launch that Ivan reminded us all of the beauty and simplicity of this clip and then he posted it on The GroundSwell Project Facebook page (thanks Ivan). This scene, apparently captured in one take, provides a lesson in how to talk to our children about death. Here are the 5 things it teaches me.
1. Say the words “dead” and “died”
They may not be easy words to use but all children need to hear these words first.
Using phrases like “passed away”, “gone”, “sleeping” or even “gone to God” and “an Angel in the sky” are confusing for children who need a concrete explanation.
Start with the plain facts of physical death (dead means you can’t come back, dead means your body doesn’t work anymore) and then add your spiritual beliefs. Like most young children, Big Bird tries hard to grasp that dead means never coming back. Stick to the physical aspects of death first.
In this clip, offering Big Bird the reassurance that ‘no one will forget Mr Hooper’ and reminding BB of the importance of memories (ie our ongoing relationship with the dead) is given preference over talking about spiritual or religious beliefs which can come later.
2. Go at the child’s pace
Young children need time to absorb loss.
Big Bird says a number times that he doesn’t understand, even after the finality of death is explained to him. I find it very touching how the adults just wait.
They are not trying to fill-up all the silence. They wait for the next question to emerge and then they respond to that.
They also calmly repeat the same information about death and resist the urge to make it up as they go.
3. Share and show genuine feelings
So easy to say, but so hard to do!
The moment when Maria tearfully says “That’s Hooper, Big Bird, Hooper” is a total tear jerker!
In this clip, the adults are not trying to be brave or hide their feelings. This seems to help Big Bird because like most children, it's only once the adults acknowledge and share their feelings, that Big Bird says "it makes me sad" and he begins to share his.
4. It takes a community
All the adults in Big Bird’s life are working together to help him feel secure.
They seem to be looking out for each other and at the same time supporting Big Bird. In a perfect world this is what we all need when someone dies. It isn’t always possible but if you can find a small group of supporters in your family, school and community it can have a tremendous effect in helping children feel supported and secure.
5. Just because…
There is something perfectly wonderful about the exchange between Big Bird and Gordon at the end this scene.
Big Bird protesting Mr Hooper’s death says, “… but why does it have to be this way, give me one good reason!”.
To which Gordon responds: “It has to be this way, because… Just because”.
Such an honest thing to say in that moment. There is a part of me that wants Gordon to say more and try and explain ‘it’ to Big Bird. I’m glad he doesn’t because in that moment Big Bird accepts it and they all move on.
Talking about death with children needs time and it doesn’t need to be complicated.