There is perhaps nothing more difficult than having to explain death to a child for the first time. As they slowly begin to understand that a relative or pet or family friend isn’t coming back, you can see the innocence slowly disappearing from their eyes. Talking about the ‘ole mortuarial two-step will always be tricky. But it’s always more helpful when your kids can understand it in the context of a world they love. And, over the years, everyone from Big Bird to Mister Rogers has tackled the subject. Here are eight times kid’s TV shows took on death in honest and powerful ways.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Death of a Goldfish” (1970)
Leave it to Mister Rogers to turn a dead fish into a teachable moment. In this classic episode, when Mr. Rogers discovers a deceased fish in his aquarium, he naturally decides to throw it a funeral. While preparing to bury his beloved pet, Rogers recalls the sadness he felt when his childhood dog died. This simple episode serves as a poignant, powerful lesson to children about death and Rogers makes sure to let his viewers know that it’s okay to feel sad when someone dies.
Sesame Street: “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” (1983)
Mr. Hooper was one of the original humans to appear on Sesame Street. The elderly shopkeeper shuffled off this mortal coil in 1983. Many shows would have just pretended Mr. Hooper moved to a different street or simply never acknowledged his disappearance. But Jim Henson and co instead addressed it on air. When Big Bird showed up looking for Mr. Hooper, the other humans tried to explain Hooper’s death to him. What follows is an absolutely beautiful and heart-rending episode where Big Bird struggles to accept the fact that his friend is really gone.
Bobby’s World: “The Music” (1992)
This forgotten Fox Kids show from the nineties talked about death in an honest way through Bobby’s friendship with Abe, the school crossing guard. Bobby sees Abe on the way to and from school every day and they become fast friends. However, one day Bobby notices Abe isn’t there to help kids cross the street safely and he later learns that it’s because Abe has passed away. The episode manages to acknowledge the pain of losing someone you care about while not giving any false hope to make Bobby (or the viewer) feel better.
Dinosaurs: “Georgie Must Die” (1994)
For most of its run, Dinosaurs was primarily known for being a relatively standard family sitcom that starred dinosaurs instead of people. But the TGIF staple took a dark and unexpected turn in its series finale when it suddenly acknowledged the wooly mammoth in the room: extinction. The show ends by having the titular Dinosaurs get permanently wiped off the map. But the showrunners make the dinosaurs acutely aware of their impending demise, which allows them to come to terms with the great beyond in their own way.
Rugrats: “Mother’s Day” (1997)
During the Rugrats run, Chaz Finster was a mustachioed bachelor. In this episode, the absence of Chuckie’s mom is finally addressed when Angelica explains the meaning of Mother’s Day to Tommy and the rest of the gang. Over the course of the episode, we learn that Chuckie’s mom died of a terminal illness when he was very young. Unsurprisingly, it is an episode that’s certainly tough to watch (there is a flashback where Mrs. Finster plays with Chuckie when he’s a newborn that is especially hard) but one that, of course, ends on an uplifting note as Chuckie realizes his mom’s death doesn’t mean she’s no longer a part of his life.
Boy Meets World: “We’ll Have a Good Time Then” (1999)
Cory’s best friend Shawn never had an easy relationship with his father Chet but that didn’t make it any easier when his dad unexpectedly had a heart attack and died. The look on Shawn’s face when he finds out he’ll never see his dad again is devastating but the show teaches an important lesson in finding comfort in the people around you, as well as the importance of letting your friends grieve in their own way.
Hey Arnold!: “Parents Day” (2000)
Arnold’s missing parents had long been noticed by fans but never officially addressed by the show. All of that changes when Arnold learns there will be a “Parent’s Day” competition at his school, which causes everyone’s favorite football head to finally ask his grandpa what really happened to his parents. Along with Arnold, viewers learned that his parents were hero scientists who disappeared while trying to help a disease-filled village in Ecuador. Hope you have your tissues ready for this one, as it’s hard not to get choked up when Arnold’s parents say goodbye to their son for the last time.
Pokémon Origins: “File 2: Cubone” (2013)
Throughout most of the Pokémon series, the creature Cubone is shown to be a bit of a loner. But viewers were shown why in this brutally sad episode of Origins. In the episode, we learn Cubone used to live happily with his mother Marowack until Team Rocket tried to capture them to use them for evil. Rather than let her son be a pawn for the dastardly Team Rocket, Marowack sacrificed herself so that Cubone could escape. It’s one of the most potent examples of the unconditional love parents have for their kids — and also explains why certain friends might be standoffish.