Dealing with Death of a Kindergarten Classmate
by Elaine Leet (21 September 2002)
During the 2001-2002 school year, a young boy named Allen who had terminal cancer, enrolled in my kindergarten class. Our concern at the school was making Allen comfortable in the class and preparing the other students for a special classmate. We were also concerned about how to deal with his imminent death. From our experiences, other teachers can learn how to handle such a situation.
Questions you may have include:
- What preparations were made to deal with Allen?
- How did the students react to Allen and his disease?
- What can other teachers learn from this?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Allen's father came to my school in late May 2001 to register Allen and his two step brothers in kindergarten. As the grade level chairperson for the kindergarten, I sat down with the father, who explained about Allen's condition and why he wore an eye-patch. This is when the preparations for dealing with Allen's participation in school began.
I called the principal into that meeting after about a half hour discussion with the father. Allen was at this meeting, along with his step brothers. Allen himself told me a great deal about his condition at this meeting. I administered our kindergarten screening to Allen at this time.
My family has been dealing with cancer for years, so several of my first calls were to those I knew who could give me a first hand perspective. Every one of these people recommended that Allen be treated as a "regular kid" as long as possible.
I tried very hard to follow that advice. I researched children's literature on debilitating conditions and death through the internet and through personal recommendations. My plan was to integrate the vocabulary of illness, death and grief into my classroom studies of literature and science. When my class took a walking tour of our little town I included a brief talk about the funeral home as we walked by it. When we talked about "alive" and "not alive" in science, I added "no longer alive."
My principal addressed the staff briefly on this. She asked all teachers to instruct their students not to stare or ask inappropriate questions. I did offer to visit any classes where students had questions.
To teach the students about this special situation, we had lessons in dealing with grief and tragedies, used 5th graders to help out,
Dealing with grief
The fall of 2001 provided multiple opportunities for presenting the traditions of dealing with grief:
- On September 11th, we watched the fall of the Twin Towers on television.
- Many of the children experienced death through their extended families.
- Our favorite school custodian died unexpectedly. He was related to several children in my class.
These unfortunate events gave us practice in using the vocabulary of sympathy and grief. We made cards, sent flowers, and many of us went to funerals. All of this promoted open discussion on these topics in my classroom.
The innocent faith of 5-year-olds really helped us all get through the year.
Employed 5th graders
To give the children a working definition of cancer, I enlisted our fifth grade reading buddies. I gave the older class a brief orientation on cancer and the situation in my classroom. I asked them to color the coloring book pages describing cancer so that I could laminate it and use it as a story book for my students.
During buddy reading time the fifth graders re-read the books that I had introduced. My students chose the books they wanted the fifth graders to read so this was done as my students were ready.
Focus on conditions
Since we could do nothing to cure cancer or stop its course, I felt it was important to focus some of our time on disabling conditions that we could do something about.
Practice guide dog
I arranged for a puppy being reared as a guide dog for the blind to visit my class regularly. My students and their buddies practiced guiding each other blindfolded through a maze I invited the local social worker for the blind to visit my class and show us the technological devices that assisted the blind. Our study of the senses lent itself easily to making scented sachets with bells for the blind for Christmas. Allen participated in these activities along with the other children.
Other child with eye patch
I arranged a special conference with the parents of one of my other students who was wearing an eye patch. I emphasized to them that they might need to remind their daughter that her condition was temporary, that she did not have cancer, and that we expected her eye to be normal in the near future.
Discussed it in class
During some of the classes I would introduce things about conditions similar to Allen's. He would very quickly put himself in the driver's seat on these matters.
He stood in front of his classmates the first day of school and explained cancer, chemo, radiation, and surgery. He answered his classmates' questions and removed the eye patch so that they could see what was underneath. I did need to reinforce that the doctors removed the eye to keep Allen as well as possible. Several children voiced the opinion that the eye was taken as a punishment or act of violence, so Allen and I corrected that misconception.
Communicated on medical situations
When Allen had to be hospitalized for several weeks, I coordinated with the hospital teacher to keep him as up to date as possible in his academic progress. I also maintained frequent contact with Allen's father through telephone calls and home visits.
Planned for emergencies
We did hit a glitch when it came to the "Do Not Resuscitate" order. The doctor would not issue a second order and our local emergency medical technicians (EMTs) could only honor an original. Allen ended up carrying this important document in his backpack.
Other staff directly involved included my assistant. We sat down and planned what we would need to do in case we needed to remove the children from the room, call the EMTs and notify Allen's family all at once. We kept a list of phone umbers at the door and occasionally my assistant would practice with the children by just suddenly announcing it was time to go for a walk.
Allen had been through several courses of chemo, radiation, and surgery. Based on what we knew a collapse at school, though not imminent was a possibility and we felt better being ready for it.
There were some negative reactions from other parents. Everyone wasn't so nice. Other than the alternate interpretation of the empty chair, nobody complained to my face. Some were just glad he wasn't in their class. Others didn't feel they had useful alternatives to offer.
Looking back it might also have been due to a fiercely maternal attitude that I wasn't aware of exhibiting. There was a “don't mess with me on this one” that all of us working with Allen carried.
At Allen's family's request I had scheduled an early graduation for Allen and every staff member committed to showing up on a Saturday morning and begged to do something for the occasion. Unfortunately Allen's family cancelled the event at the last moment.
The other 2 kindergarten teachers each had one of Allen's step-brothers in their classes. They were new to teaching kindergarten. Although I shared all of my information with them, they did not go into the depth that I did in my class.
My fifth grade buddy teacher was extraordinarily supportive in every way. My principal oversaw the legal and required school policies.
Allen was able to function quite well in the classroom until Christmas.
I was frustrated by the slow process of getting him access to the special education resources. But by the time he needed them in January, the paperwork had gone through and Allen spent part of the morning getting individual attention and self paced lessons in the resource room. This allowed him to sleep more comfortably and work as he was able.
But there was also lots of moral support and terrific cooperation.
The principal supported me through clearing things as necessary with the central office and kept us legal in regards to the "Do Not Resuscitate" order. She arranged for the availability of the bus to take Allen home when necessary. (Allen's family was blessed with a set of twins in October, making it difficult for them to come to school to get Allen.)
Help, not advice
Nobody gave advice. They just offered to help in any way they could. After the fact, I became aware that at least one person interpreted things differently from me. After Allen's death, my students objected to his seat being assigned to a new student so I left the seat empty.
As the children rotated through centers, the chair and table were used by students for daily activities but when we started the day and ended the day, it was Allen's seat. One staff member thought that this only made Allen's absence more painful. My students and I were comforted by awareness of his ongoing presence.
Support for other children
One really fuzzy area was how to help the parents of my other students support their children without violating Allen's right to privacy. Most of the parents were able to understand what was going on from my general newsletters and the intricate news network of a small town.
In the end I believe my students were better able to deal with the realities of losing Allen than most of the parents. Unfortunately, I had one parent who concealed the fact that she could not read and missed out on a great deal of information.
One of my frustrations was with the hospice organization. They were involved with Allen's family during the final months. Allen was allowed to die at home. I could not get in touch with this organization. I had hoped that they might have resources that would be helpful to my class.
My assistant and I called all of our students' families the night Allen died so that parents could break the news to the children in their own way. My students planned the tree dedication ceremonies from inviting the principal to speak and Allen's family to attend, to choosing the songs we would sing.
When Allen died, one parent, who we could not reach by telephone the night before to notify her of Allen's passing, did come to school to take her child home. The child was calm and involved in the activities of making cards and sharing with classmates. Mom was not so calm but did not come to me or any staff member with concerns. She did bring her son to the wake.
I was careful to respect the children's expressions of their religious training. All of my students came from similar belief backgrounds. I kept my lessons and activities based on science, local traditions such as referring to a “wake” rather than a “viewing” and ecumenical language.
In the spring our county hosted it first ever Walk for the Cure to raise money for finding a cure for cancer. My school sponsored a team in memory of Allen. They raised over $1,000 and the county raised over $60,000! This was at least in part due to the lasting impression Allen made on all of us.
Advice to others
One recommendation to other teachers who run into a similar situation is to solicit as much family input as possible. Find out what they want their child to gain from being in the classroom.
Also, talk with people who actually have cancer to get their ideas and perspective.
Encourage students to become scientists. Maybe one of our students will be the observant innovator that cures a dreadful disease like cancer.
Participate in cancer research activities and fund raisers. Expand your focus to include disabling conditions and ways to support individuals in overcoming those problems.
Mostly remember that the person is whole and complete.
Don't let the disease become your definition of the person. Compassion is nice, but the individual within the disabled body wants to be liked and respected for who he or she is.
I would like to offer a couple of practical things I learned.
If you decide to plant a tree, be sure the soil will support the tree's growth.
Be prepared for the family to change their interpretation and goals.
Try like crazy to get the family into the classroom to see first hand how things are going.
Take lots of photographs. I think that, next to the diploma, the “year book” that I made for Allen's family was what they treasured most. My other students searched their books for pictures including Allen before they looked for anything else.
Be patient with the child who comes in everyday asking if Allen is coming back today.
Take care of your own mental and physical health.
Our goal was to make Allen's short stay in school and enjoyable experience for him. We tried to prepare students, teachers and parents for the presence of a classmate with cancer. I think we achieved our goals. It was an enriching, but sad, experience.
In My Story of the Death of a Kindergarten Student, I give a person view of this situation.
The rewards for caring are great
Resources and references
Elaine Leet is a kindergarten teacher at Mariam Boyd School in Warrenton, North Carolina.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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