In the seventh chapter of the E.B. White children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” a no-nonsense old sheep informs sensitive young pig Wilbur of his fate: Farmer Zuckerman is fattening up Wilbur to kill him and make bacon. Wilbur is going to die.
In Lancaster County, one of America’s lustrous agricultural gems, farm kids learn early on about the cycle of life. The people who feed the world, whether harvesting onions or animals, understand that living things consume other living things.
Lots of pigs like Wilbur crossed the auction block last week at Elizabethtown Fair, many of them raised and offered for sale by children not much older than Fern, Farmer Zuckerman’s big-hearted 8-year-old niece who rescues Wilbur from the ax when he is born a runt.
Nine-year-old Kody Balmer, a fourth-grader at Baron Elementary School in Manheim and a lover of pork ribs, was decidedly less attached to his pigs, Peppa, whom he called “stubborn,” and Diesel, a “scaredy cat.” His relationship with the animals might have been best described as transactional, as he was eager to sell them at the fair.
“Because you need money to buy a truck,” Kody says, “or if you want to go to college.”
Ten-year-old Kolton Youndt, also of Manheim, hadn’t formed much of an attachment to his pigs either, but his cattle are a different matter. Kolton spends at least an hour a day caring for his champion steer, Krin, and his champion breeding heifer, Blue Steel. He walks, combs and cleans the animals, which he describes as tame and friendly.
Kolton has been caring for Krin for a year now, more than doubling his weight from about 600 pounds to over 1,300 pounds, and when he sells Krin at the Manheim Farm Show in October, Kolton expects he’ll be sad. Kolton still misses the steer he raised last year, but he understands why farm animals must die.
In the catalog of his affections, cattle rate near the top.
“I definitely like our dog a lot better than my cattle, but I definitely like my cattle better than the cats.”
With proud parents Kristen and Kyle Youndt standing by him as he contemplated the personalities of his animals, it was clear Kolton loved his family most of all. Ag-invested families like the Youndts have a ready platform for talking about the difficult subject of death because it’s part of the landscape of their daily lives. They’re connected to the land and to the food they eat. When the cafeteria at Manheim Central Middle School serves hot dogs, Kolton knows an animal died so he could eat lunch.
Most kids who eat hot dogs tend not to think about where those plump little meat sticks come from, yet animals and other living things still play a vital role in the development of their understanding of death.
In addition to eating other more obvious meat products, like chicken, kids regularly squish bugs, overfeed goldfish and ride in cars that collide with animals. Once-conscious creatures are forever turning up dead around children, and they notice.
Kids notice a lot more than grown-ups often give them credit for, and in a child’s world, death is everywhere. It’s in the cartoons they watch, the songs they sing, the books they read and the games they play. Cherished pets die, beloved people die and, on rare occasions, children themselves face death.
With so much death in the neighborhood, kids naturally turn to grown-ups with questions.
Dr. Wynne Morrison, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, directs the hospital’s palliative care team and regularly works with children facing life-limiting illnesses, as well as their siblings and other family members. Open dialogue, she says, is essential for helping the young process and come to terms with death.
“The times I worry the most are when a family feels they need to completely hide from a child what’s going on,” Morrison says. “They feel like the child needs to be protected from that knowledge (of death) somehow. Because kids hear things; they’re smart. They’re going to pick up that something’s going on. They’re going to pick up that their parents are upset. It’s probably scarier to not be able to ask the questions you want to ask and not be able to talk about it, than it is to be able to have those questions asked.”
Those questions can be some of the hardest to answer: Will I die? When will I die? What happens when I die? Will it hurt? What happens after I die? Will you be there?
In terms of their development, children often begin more seriously investigating death around age 5, though there’s no set schedule.
“We’ve had some 5-year-old patients who you would describe as wise beyond their years, who are very insightful about things,” Morrison says, “and some teenagers who can’t bear to talk about difficult topics and avoid it at all costs.”
As a parent or caregiver, it’s helpful to have some concept of how and when children form their ideas about death. At its website, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia does an excellent job summarizing how children process death at different developmental stages. (Read about it at bit.ly/How_Kids_View_Death.)
Irrespective of age, the task is pretty straightforward. Children must take the abstraction of death and make it more concrete. They have to be able to apply it to their own lives, and that requires assistance from people who have been around longer.
Parents of today’s young children tend to turn first to the internet for help with difficult tasks, and when it comes to talking to children about death, online resources abound. For sure, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ healthychildren.org, which offers thorough, specific guidance.
In a nutshell, knowing how to talk to children about death —understanding the approach — is just as important as knowing what to say, perhaps more so. While unique spiritual perspectives inevitably color the discussion, the foundational basics cut across culture and creed.
Honestly represent the facts.
When people die, they stop breathing, their hearts stops beating and their bodies shut down completely. Death is permanent and irreversible and it comes to everyone in time. The causes vary, from accident, to illness, to old age. These facts are the same for everyone, but the unadorned truth can sometimes be the hardest to relate. Still, children need to understand the biological reality.
Be open to emotion.
Feelings are good. Death makes people sad, thinking about it hurts and tears can help lubricate a difficult conversation. Don’t be afraid to cry.
Listen and ask questions.
Encourage children to share their perspectives. Morrison even suggests answering some questions with questions. “If a child asks ‘What’s going to happen next?’ answer with ‘Well, what do you think?’ It allows them to get the conversation out and really talk about what they’re most afraid of. Sometimes what they really need to hear the most is that they’re going to be safe and that the people who love them will be there caring for them, especially if they are losing someone they love.”
Don’t expect to have all the answers.
It takes time for children — and adults — to develop an understanding of death. Think of the conversation as an ongoing joint investigation, not a one-time lecture. Parents and children may end up looking for some answers together.
Give them hope.
Death is the end of life, but the living matters most. Take a cue from Charlotte the wise little spider, E.B. White’s eight-legged heroine and protector of Wilbur the pig. Even as she is dying, Charlotte assures the pig, “You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. … Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days.”
Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to email@example.com.