Seeing Death in Nature: Preparing Children for Loss, by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

Saturday, 08 Aug 2015 05:25

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page

“The most significant variable of a relatively uncomplicated bereavement period or a prolonged and
tragic mourning depends to a great deal on the relationship the child and the parent had, on the old unresolved conflicts they carried within, and on the level of communication they had. Last but not least is the mourner’s early experiences with death and loss.”

~Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, MD


She cried as she held the baby bird. I cried as I held her (my daughter), after all she was my baby

My daughter’s attempt at rescuing and feeding the baby bird who had fallen out of it’s nest had failed. The bird had become weak and then collapsed this morning during feeding. Now it was dying.

It was the first time my daughter had watched dying up close. It was the first time she had touched a dying creature, let alone held the dying against her breast.

Dying birds aren’t much different than dying humans. Recognizing the course, I sensitively talked
her through it. I held her as she cried and cradled the bird. I whispered how nicely she was caring for the bird, and traced the signs of dying: He was weak, and later, unresponsive with heavy breathing through opened-beak. Suddenly, he woke up chirping loudly and looked up to my daughter. She was shocked!

She asked me in wonder, “Is this a last hurrah?”

I responded, “Sometimes there is a rally. It’s a last gift. It’s a time for goodbyes.”

Our bird was awake and chirping for 2 minutes. Then, he grew still… and pooped.

Immediately afterward, he kicked his left leg 4 times and died. His little body lay limp in her the curve of her palm.

“Is he gone, Mom?” she asked through thick tears.

“Yes, dear. He is gone. Thank you for being with him and caring for him like this.”

She lovingly closed his eyes, one at a time with the tip of her finger and laid him
to rest in the makeshift nest we had created for him.


Our vigil came to an end. We cried a little more. Our hearts were tender.

I brought my daughter tissues and water. She dried her eyes then carefully wrapped the bird. We called her other sisters together for a funeral.

We all marched in a natural procession to the animal burial ground on our little farm. I dug the grave. One child delivered a eulogy and the other decorated the site and selected a stone. We all stood in silence.


Why was this exercise so important for my children?

Because one day, the bird will be me.



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6 thoughts on “Seeing Death in Nature: Preparing Children for Loss, by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

  1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

    I didn’t want to make this recommendation part of the article to maintain the experience, however, I feel strongly that we must reintroduce aging and death into the cycle of life for our young people. We should modify health and science curricula to reflect experiential and scientific knowledge of the end of life. This should be part of religious education for those religiously inclined. This vital part is missing in the detail that it deserves. Anyone want to write some text book chapters with me?

    1. Julie Saeger Nierenberg

      This is so inspiring and rings loudly with evergreen Truth.

      If I could assist your textbook chapter efforts in any way, as a biologist, educator, writer, editor, and end-of-life-quality advocate, you let me know, Monica! I exchange those hats freely and often.

      Thank you for posting this touching piece.

      My daughters and I have similar tales, one that grew of my youngest one’s efforts to rescue roly-poly bugs and another that tied the conclusion of the short movie “The Snowman” to the death of my grandfather (at least in her young mind this made sense).

  2. Rea

    A beautiful description of one brief moment in the life of a child, a teaching moment that was both short and long — and will last a lifetime. — We know from painful WWII live “research” that, if parents are calm and instructive in the face of mortal danger, the children will also be calm, strong, and tolerant. Altho this story has a slightly different slant, it tells us that, in all probability, the tearful little girl will grow to be the same: calm, strong, tolerant.

    I suspect the incident/lesson was important because death is exactly a part of life itself. And this little girl will see it quite a few more times in her own lifetime. She is learning about “a good death.” Maybe we should all take that lesson to heart?

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  4. Don Byrne

    The last sentence falls with a thud on my soul! Really enjoyed this short sweet lesson. I take every chance around our farmstead to talk kids through the dying process of our animals, and this piece encourages me more in this direction. Thanks for this, Monica.

  5. Pingback: Seeing Death in Nature: Preparing Children for Loss | It’s OK to Die | Loss, Grief, Transitions and Relationship Support

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