On a recent Friday, I swung open the gate to my daughter’s school yard. I was expecting to find the usual crowd of mothers milling outside in the garden. But I knew something was dreadfully wrong when a teacher solemnly ushered me toward a full, but silent classroom. Inside, the mothers sat, wiping their eyes and weeping at the news that a pupil and his mother had been hit by a car while cycling to school. The mother had died instantly. The 5-year-old boy was in a coma.

Hiratsuka Yochien is a large nursery school with about 150 students, and I didn’t know the mother personally. It would never have occurred to me to go to the funeral. So, it was even more unexpected when the principal announced that all the children in the injured boy’s class would go to the funeral in his place. How do you explain death to preschool children, let alone a funeral? What are they ready to hear and witness with their own eyes?

“We explained to the children that because their friend was in the hospital, we would say goodbye and pray for his mother,” said the school principal, Michihiko Hiratsuka.

Hiratsuka’s decision to send young schoolchildren to a funeral would not meet with instant agreement from some early childhood educators. For example, the first reaction of Rosalind Brown, a British teacher with 14 years experience in Japanese early childhood education, was “I think it’s a nice gesture, but it’s a bit peculiar. I don’t think little kids need to go to funerals. It’s boring; the adults are upset — and the children don’t understand what’s happening anyway.

“I don’t think kids should be shielded from death,” Brown added. “They have to be broken into the idea that they’ll lose people as they grow up. People die in fairy tales, after all. But I don’t think we need to inflict funerals on small children.”

This got me thinking: How much of the way we explain death to children is influenced by our cultural roots? “Hiratsuka took a pretty different approach than what we’re used to in the West,” admits Betsey Olsen, a Tokyo-based psychologist.

While there may be differences in the way different societies explain death to their children, says Akiko Ohnogi, a child psychologist at Nishimachi International School in Hiroo and in private practice, children themselves deal with death in pretty much the same way everywhere.

Children of any age want to know what death means. “Japanese and American children will ask the same questions,” she says. ” ‘Where do they go? Will I ever see them again? Are they happy where they are? Why do they die?’ ”

They also ask about themselves, Ohnogi continued: ” ‘What will happen to me and my parent now that one parent is dead?’ Lifestyle changes are also a big question. Children worry that the remaining parent will die, too. The child is very concerned for the safety of the other parent, as well as for him or herself.

“When it comes to informing a child about a parent’s death, it’s better if it’s done by the [surviving] parent,” Ohnogi explained. “He or she may hear it from a relative or a sibling or a friend — especially if the remaining parent is emotionally upset at the time — but it’s best if it can be done by the parent.”

According to Ohnogi, children understand the concept of death in so far as they know that they won’t ever see a loved person, a grandparent, or a pet ever again. But kids who are into fantastical games, such as those played on Nintendo and Play Station, might believe that they have the supernatural power to resurrect a person. Their concept of death, Ohnogi says, might be a little confused.

“To answer children’s existential questions, it’s important to get into their minds, let them talk about their feelings and thoughts, and depending on what they say, clear up confusion,” Ohnogi said.

One child at Hiratsuka Yochien was concerned about whether her injured friend would still be able to attend school. Her questions: “Who will make his o-bento? Who will take him to school?”

“Preschoolers are pretty self-centered and don’t ordinarily have the concept of death,” said Olsen. One grim-sounding exercise she recommends is to sit a child opposite an empty chair and ask them to imagine what they would say to their lost loved one if he or she were sitting there. This helps children bring out their feelings more directly, she says.

According to Olsen, preparing a child before a funeral is very important, so that the child knows what to expect. Parents have to use their own intuition to determine whether a funeral visit will help the child or not.

When the 43 children from the hospitalized boy’s class arrived at a Shinagawa temple for the funeral, some appeared to be as impressed by the big limousine bus they traveled in as they were by the funeral itself. Wearing the traditional school navy smock, they were kept busy in the temple parking lot around small tables.

One of their teachers, Miyoko Maejima, who has been teaching at Hiratsuke Yochien for the last 38 years (and who was dealing with a pupil’s loss of a parent for the first time), set out colored pens and seals for the children to decorate cards with and, for those who could write, to put down words of encouragement for the boy and his family. When the adults had finished paying their respects, the children made a brief visit as a group inside the funeral hall to pray before the mother’s casket.

Olsen remains doubtful about the value of a funeral visit. “Funerals are adult-oriented,” she said. “Hiratsuka Yochien did well to incorporate what a child needs into the funeral. But a child-oriented ceremony at the school would have been my recommendation.”

On the other hand, Brown had a rethink and said that there might have been some positive effects. “Maybe it would lighten up the atmosphere at the funeral. Little kids do tend to cheer people up.”

The injured boy regained consciousness after five days, and throughout his 3-week hospital stay, his teachers joined his family and close friends in making daily trips to the hospital. “We’d tell him what we did at school every day, read books to him,” said Maejima. “As he got better, able to talk and ask questions, it was weighing on everybody’s minds how to explain his mother’s death. Toward the end of his hospital stay, I brought him a book called ‘The Shining World,’ by Shomei Yoh, which explains death through the eyes of a little boy who passes to the other side but still remains close to his family in spirit.”

As the boy’s release date came closer, his father got ready to break the news in the presence of family, the Hiratsuka teachers and hospital doctors. The boy nodded knowingly, for he had figured out with each passing day that his mother’s chances of coming back were getting dimmer. He took the news bravely, relieved to be well enough to go home.

He is back at school now, and with the loving support of his family, friends, teachers and doctors, the prognosis for his physical recovery looks very good. As for the emotional recovery, his rock-solid support team stands by on full alert, offering what they can through all means available, especially the healing power of love.

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