"Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?"
With that question, Gerard Manley Hopkins begins his poem "Spring and Fall to a Young Child," a lyrical, honest look at the message of mortality that is carried in every falling leaf.
The changing cycles of nature, now spread so beautifully across the landscape in many parts of the country, provide the kinds of moments that parents, like poets, can use to help their children learn about death. That's an important task, one that is easier to do before some crisis or loss produces the inevitable and sometimes unanswerable questions that spring so readily from curious children.
Considering the kind of world we live in, children need those teaching moments more than ever, says Dr. Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist in Rhode Island who specializes in bereavement counseling. Traumatic accidents, random criminal violence, the threat to Americans in the Middle East -- these are ways in which death can touch any of us and that can be difficult for children to cope with, especially when they have been given no understanding of death beforehand.
Dr. Rando sees nature as a useful tool in introducing children to the concept of death. It helps them "perceive it not as something foreign, but as part of an ongoing process." It's important, she says, to help children understand that death is not something rare or strange, but rather a natural part of the life cycle.
Nature offers these lessons, these teaching moments, in many vivid ways. A walk through the woods, leaf-raking in the yard, watching squirrels collecting nuts for a long winter of hibernation, birds flying south -- any of these things can spur a conversation about the seasons that govern our lives, about times to be born and times to die, about the fact that being mortal means that life is not one endless summer.
Dr. Rando adds an important cautionary note. Adults often draw comfort from the theme of death and rebirth, from the fact that leaves die and fall from the tree but come springtime, those limbs will bud again with green. But the hope we find in knowing that spring will come again can confuse children, who often find it hard to understand the finality of death. She cites the example of a mother whose 4-year-old acknowledged the fact that his uncle was dead, then promptly asked: "So how long will Uncle John be dead? When will he be back?"
The cycles of nature -- death and rebirth -- are reflected in the larger story of humankind. Each of us has only a small chapter of that sweeping saga.
Yet even though our lives are limited by mortality, death doesn't rob them of their meaning. That's an important part of the message, one that adults need to remember and that children need to hear. Coming to terms with mortality is an important step in understanding what a special gift each life -- and each day of that life -- can be.
Leaves fall in the autumn, then miraculously reappear in the springtime. But the new leaves are different leaves. The continuity we see around us is in fact built on constant change. In Hopkins' words:
"It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for."
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278
Universal Press Syndicate