Whiskers and how to talk to children about death
For as long as there has been a Bloom school, there has been a Bloom school cat.
Bloom school cats are survivors. Most have miraculously escaped a miserable end and live on to roam freely around Bloom’s neighbourhood and woods with their “Raja” (a word used to refer to the particular group of friends one spends time with and respects in Bosnia).
These cats are not permitted into Bloom premises during the school day, but never miss an opportunity to watch the students play outside and receive some attention. They belong to Bloom family and over the years have greatly contributed to creating Bloom lore.
One such cat, which the children called Whiskers, was found dead in the woods one day, after a relatively short life. The children were overcome with grief. Some burst into tears, others hugged each other, howling loudly. Others announced the cat would have to be buried right here, right now, in this forest it loved so much, and that prayers should be shared.
Then a little voice said: “How can we do all of that? We don’t know what was Whiskers’ religion…”
A discussion followed: “Egyptians worshipped cats. They had a fierce cat warrior goddess! Whiskers was probably of that religion! – No! Whiskers is from here! From this land. It must be Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic. – No! Whiskers belongs to the Animal Kingdom. They don’t have religions. They love nature! – No! Why don’t we read a beautiful poem to honour its life? And on it went.”
Eventually, the children agreed that they would never really know much about Whiskers personal beliefs, and that this wasn’t really very important. What mattered most was how they felt about Whiskers and how they wanted to say good-bye to their friend the cat.
In the end, each child contributed to the funeral ceremony in a very personal manner. Some chose to recite a poem, some chose to say a prayer, some chose to use their own words and some preferred to remain silent. It was a beautiful and unique moment. Whiskers must have felt very loved. And I believe each child got full closure on a process that can be quite shocking if it is not supported properly.
Children this age (9-12) usually understand that death is final. They are also aware of how adults react to death. However, the experience of death in their life may create anxiety about their safety and that of those they love. It may trigger strong emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, guilt. And they can sometimes become overly preoccupied about what has happened as a result.
At Bloom, we believe that every experience offers a chance to grow and expand further into one’s potential. For this reason, Whisker’s early death became a wonderful opportunity for the teachers to explore the subject of death with the children, helping them transform what could have been traumatic into a profound shared experience that became formative and empowering.
How did they do this?
The children received honest and open information about death and were given space and time to talk about their feelings with adults they trusted and were encouraged to be themselves in this process.
We follow the child in its unique journey and ground its learning in real life. As Montessori says so beautifully “Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child open himself up to life.”
Whiskers lives on at Bloom. His life and death continue to be celebrated and his grave visited regularly by students and guests!