Edith Sullwold 
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"What Children Know" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.

Reprinted by permission of American Academy of Psychotherapists, from Voices: The Art and Science of
Psychotherapy  by Edward Tick, Ph.D., ed., copyright © 1991 by the American Academy of Psychotherapists.

It was a bright blue‑skied May day in the desert. The children were running through carpets of spring flowers brilliantly illuminating the otherwise brown, sandy landscape. They stopped every so often to share a discovery - a white trumpet flower spiralling open under the noon sun, a huge, soft red blossom on a spiky cactus. But suddenly there was a cry of distress. A seven‑year‑old had just found a big jack rabbit who was obviously not well. We gathered around, ten children and two adults, myself and a physician friend who lifted the rabbit gently in his arms. Seeing no signs of injury, he listened to the rabbit's heart. He speculated that it might have had a heart attack from a sudden fright - a speeding car too near, a coyote in hot pursuit.

The oldest, a girl of 11, asked to hold the rabbit and in her arms it died. The seven‑year‑old began to cry, sobbing "What do we do now?" Trying to comfort him, his older brother said, "We'll have to have a funeral for our friend." For the next several hours I was privileged to witness the creation of a ritual by these children that awed me with its completeness, its understanding of the human need to mourn and honour that which we have lost.

The seven‑year‑old, first to be involved, said, "We'll have to bury our friend in a good hole. I bet he lived in a hole at night, so
it'll be more like home." A big hole was dug, lined with stones and soft grasses - "to be solid but comfortable." Around the hole a larger ring of stones was placed to protect the grave from whatever "scary guys" might come near.

As the rabbit was placed in the strong‑soft hole, one said, "We need a sermon." "No," said another, "Jimmy already gave it with his crying. Why not just all say something in our own way?" And so they did, as each placed a small bouquet of flowers they had gathered on "Mr. Jack Rabbit's Hole‑House". "I'm sorry you got scared and had to die and I'm sad. But I'm glad you died in the spring - winter would have been too cold and spring's new," came from the littlest boy. Another small, quiet one had run off by herself to draw a picture of the sun rising over the desert with a long‑eared rabbit running toward it. She silently placed it inside the rocks - a tribute as beautiful as any carved grave stone I've seen. Another boy ran to get his beach towel and placed it over the rabbit "So I'll remember you whenever I miss my towel. Maybe it will remind the rabbit of us." More stones were put on topof the towel to seal the grave as the oldest ran to get her flute, coming back to play the final requiem.

Sober, saddened, but seemingly satisfied, they scattered in silence, each one alone as if contemplating the event they had just shared. But soon, as if the need for support drew them together, they went back to their exploration of the desert.

What was evident in the children's ceremony and their statements was a combination of the sorrow of the loss and the accompanying sense of love, made more apparent and acute by the loss. Also, because they had taken time to honour this animal friend, it seemed that other aspects of the desert scene became more vivid. They began to explore other holes, wondering who lived in them - snakes, chipmunks, spiders - asking each other what would scare these creatures and pondering the question of why things were made so that one animal scared another. The ultimate question behind all philosophical speculation began to emerge - the "WHY?".

Gathering around the fire that evening reviewing the day, this questioning culminated in another fundamental question, when suddenly a four‑year‑old who had been napping during the event asked, "What is dead, anyway? What is death?" As with the funeral, there were many spontaneous reflections from the young ones. Several remain vivid in my memory: 

"When you die, the soul could leave your body, but you'd stay in the coffin you were buried in and after you'd be there a long, long time, the coffin would get really soft because of the moisture that it would be in and the insects would begin eating away some of the tissues that you left and then maybe a cow would eat an insect and then a man would eat the cow and so I think about death is that people go into another person and the cycle keeps on going, so a dead person could be a part of your body."  (Age 6)

"Death is just a completion of what you are learning in this life, you know, you're finished with the eon and time to go to something else, whether it be hanging out in another life on this planet or another planet or just hanging out in another dimension. The physical death isn't really that important. It just means you completed your work."  (Age 11)

"I guess I feel that death is something that someone put there so that people who didn't have something to do in their life would have something to look forward to or to think about. It also seems like a WONDER. Like when I first knew that I had to get braces, you know, is it going to hurt and what is it going to be like? When I had them put on there was pain and also, like, WOW, this is my new addition or this is something that is going to correct something in me, so it seems like death should be a wonder -is it going to hurt you and what is it going to be like and is it going to be an addition to what you already have, or maybe it will take away something you already have. It seems that everything is sort of a wonder, that you wonder about in good and bad ways."  (Age 8)                      

What these ruminations hold in common is a sense of continuity - a going on of some kind, or at least a "wonder" if this is so, either in the form of personal spirit or as a part of the fabric of life itself. This sense of continuity was also described by C. G.
Jung in dreams of his older patients. He reports that the dreams seemed to pay no attention to a final ending, but presented images of passing through or crossing over and he concluded in a BBC interview: "Live on as if you were going to live forever." The drawing of the rabbit running towards the rising sun also speaks of the sense of renewal and cyclicness.

Our disconnection with the natural world and life cycles is increasing, as is evident in the presence of what some call "concrete children." These are children who do not have access to natural life processes of birth, maturity, and death in the plant and animal kingdom. As a result, the direct experience of death for a child comes without a context, especially because human death now so often occurs in the hospital, the dying isolated from the context of the family. Some years ago a friend sent me this dialogue between her four‑year‑old son and her dying mother, the boy's grandmother:

When am I going to die?
When do you want to die?
Everything must die.
Not the earth.
Yes, the earth as well.
Not the clouds.
Yes, see them vanish and be born again.
When you die, who can feed me?
Perhaps you can feed yourself.
I don't want to die.
Nana is ready to die, she's old and happy to die.
I'm new.

Are you dying, Nana?
I'm sad that I won't see you anymore.
I'll come to you in your dreams.
.K. Have a good time dying, Nana.
I'll try, Thor.

The need to bring the reality of death into the full context of life - so clear in Nana's and Thor's touching conversation, has been championed brilliantly in our time by Elizabeth Kübler‑Ross, effecting changes in our attitudes and practices surrounding death. But in addition to this change in outer context, she has found in her work with dying children that there is in them a profound inner knowing concerning this natural process of life and, in many, the sense of continuity that was expressed in the statements of the children after Mr. Jack Rabbit's death.

So it seems that, even without outer cultural experiences of death in nature or family, there is an inner sense of wisdom in children concerning this transitional event. This does not mean that this wisdom assuages the grief and pain of loss, that it can be used as a tranquilizer in the process of mourning, but it gives a context of understanding that stabilizes these emotions in a deeper grounding of reality, universally common to all life forms and addressed by all spiritual teachings. Without this grounding, the fear of death is increased because of the state of unknowing. Some of the children expressed this confusion that night around the fire, children whose questioning brought no answers: 

"I wouldn't like to die because I don't know what it's going to be like and I'd rather know what it's going to be like and I'd rather know about it before it happens so I know what it's going to
be like. But I wouldn't like to die because I'm still sort of scared because I know what it feels
like and I'd rather die of old age."                                                                     (Age 6)

"To me, the whole subject of death is so confusing, 'cause just like there are so many ways to die and so many things to look forward to - just to be afraid of and the more you think about it, the more confusing it gets and there are so many answers and all right - it's just like - and you're not really sure what to accept. To me it's confusing. So much talk."   (Age 10)

The girl who made this last statement began to cry, ending the speculations as the group surrounded her to comfort her. One boy, the clown of the crew, began to turn cartwheels saying, "There's two sides to every question - if we don't know what death is, let's just live. We sure know what life is."

These events took place during a gathering of a group called Turning Point, formed to support children suffering from serious illness. All the family members were included in the community, in addition to the professional staff consisting of physicians, psychologists, social workers and artists. In some cases, staff members had children of their own who were included. The emphasis of work in the community was to provide a compassionate atmosphere in which all members could share their
reactions to the illness - their fear, sorrow, and pain. But equally important was an emphasis on the community as a source of vital and creative energy, an energy that the ill children could use in any way that might be healing to them. We planted a vegetable garden together. One boy with a brain tumor said, "I hope the beans don't get cancer," and he tended his beans with such great care that they grew almost as well as those in Jack and the Beanstalk. When this community was in the desert on the day of Mr. Jack Rabbit's death, the emphasis again was on shared grief and concern, but also on an appreciation for the spring 'new growth' that was happening at the same time, a part of a cycle that one could see in nature.

One of the results of this experiment with community was that all members were not only involved in support of the pain of grieving, but all were face to face with these questions concerning death. Especially for the children who were not ill, the education was profound. They articulated what they learned through their expression in stories and painting, but particularly in their capacity to hold a place of compassion for others who were facing the potential of death. Those who were ill also found ways to help those who were newly ill - to share their understanding of the fears and hopes, to visit other members of their 'family' when in need.

Just before one of the boys who had cancer died, he had a vision of sitting under a tree on the beach on his favorite ocean‑looking bench. He saw and heard the voice of a large bird speaking, "It's not quite time, but I'll be back when it is time
and then we'll learn to fly together." The image is similar, of course, to that of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but this vision was
his own - very real and vivid. This boy was not a visual artist, but a superb artist with people. Often he had carried his experience with his own illness to the hospital to be with other children who were ill and frightened and in pain. He also boldly talked to the hospital staff about how they could improve their treatment of the children. In telling his vision to the community, the small artists in the group gifted him with many beautiful drawings, picturing him seated on his bench talking with his bird, painted in many different colors, always with wings open for flight. This exchange, one of many, not only validated the reality of his vision, but gave the others a chance to peek behind the veil of unknowing through their own participation with what is and what will remain
a mystery.

My own learning in being with these children who were directly facing the deaths of their friends, both animal and human, was profound. I saw how important it was that there be a context, whether through contact with nature or experiences with family, in which to view death as a natural part of the cycle of life. This perspective helped me to receive the questions of the children and to enter a dialogue with them in search of answers. In this dialogue, it was clear that the children, out of the depth of their psyches and their life experiences, had their own wisdom to share concerning this most puzzling and often painful topic of death. I learned too, through their funeral ceremony, that we have a natural and creative sense of ritual, here used to honour the dead and to offer support, not only in the mourning, but also in the return to life - life seen with even greater appreciation in the face of its loss.

Also, as in every other life situation a child is in, it was important that they have some mode of expressing themselves - to tell about their confusion, fear, grief, and pain, as well as their visions. This expression came sometimes in a direct emotional
display, sometimes in a symbolic form of story or painting. To receive these offerings with the seriousness and honour that was deserved, to provide the ears and eyes of compassion, meant that I had to face my own confusion, fear, and grief, as well as my own "wonder" about death. I had to ask myself if I, too, felt that sense of continuity some had talked about - a continuation in spirit, in some form of energy, in the web of interconnectedness that is life. Their thoughts often inspired my own.

One such inspiration came from the boy whose large bird later called him into death. I was standing with him in the desert on that eventful day when he picked up a dead lizard, stroked it gently and said softly, "I feel somehow grateful for the gift of something that has been born, grown and lived to do what it had to do and then left, leaving an energy behind that I can still feel. So maybe its death teaches me that life goes on, in energy and memory. Maybe my death will teach someone else."

It has taught me.


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