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  • mcreynoldsle

How Children Grieve, part 1: Farewell, Mr. Hooper

Updated: Apr 18

On Thanksgiving Day, 1983, the beloved children's show Sesame Street aired a landmark, highly emotional episode featuring the death of their beloved character, Mr. Hooper, played by actor Will Lee. Although the episode only once, it went on to win numerous television awards and is considered groundbreaking children's television.

After Lee died, producers debated bringing in a new actor to fill the role of shopkeeper Mr. Hooper, but decided to use the opportunity to teach children about death and loss. Producers brought in experts to discuss the challenging, crucial question: how do children experience death and grief? They debated showing Mr. Hooper in flashbacks but decided against it. They also chose to avoid euphemisms, like "passed on" or "went away," and used the words "die" and "died" instead.

In the episode, actors are visibly tearful and sad as they gently explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died. "But who will make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?" Big Bird wails, in an age-appropriate manner, "He's never coming back?" The adults take turns consoling Big Bird, repeating that when someone dies, they do not come back. The adults reassure Big Bird that they will help care for him, that it's ok to be sad, and they all miss Mr. Hooper.

The decision to show visibly upset cast members, with tears and shaky voices, was deliberate, authentic, and powerful. As adults, we want to shield our children from distressing and powerful emotions. However, this episode highlights the importance of allowing children to witness and understand these emotions as part of the grieving process. Being around crying adults might seem overwhelming or scary, but consider how those observations teach children to feel comfortable with big emotions. During periods of grief and loss, children experience feelings like sadness, anger, and fear, with periods of rest, laughter, and even silliness, and learn these emotions are all part of the normal grieving process. They learn that we can survive broken hearts and that life, eventually, gets better.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a series of posts specifically about how children experience grief and how we, as adults, can help them deal with loss. I hope these posts foster understanding and compassion around a challenging topic.

Big Bird looking at a picture of Mr. Hooper
Farewell, Mr. Hooper

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