I recently discovered a charming book in which dragonflies provide a gentle and intriguing way to start the delicate conversation about death with your children should they suffer bereavement or be struggling to come to terms with loss, be it of a parent, friend, older relative or a pet. It’s a painful, difficult subject, so how can dragonflies help? It’s all to do with their lifecycle.

There’s something magically unnerving about Dragonflies (Odonatas) and it’s more than just the name. A big Hawker buzzing you in it’s territory can be disconcerting, even other-worldly, especially considering they have been around some 350 million years when dinosaur dragonflies had a 2.5′ (76cm) wingspan!

Seen at close quarters they are stunning; bejewelled fairy fast jets with sparkling, filigree wings… children are enthralled by them.

Southern Hawker Dragonfly drying out on net
Drying out after rescue from falling into the pond before wings were dry

I photographed these Southern Hawkers (Britain’s most common Dragonfly) in my parents’ Cotswold garden in June 2007. They appeared overnight, leaving dessicated larva cases attached to water irises in the pond and literally hung around to dry and redistribute body fluids. Young dragonflies, or tenerals, have vibrantly sparkling wings for several hours until they dry out.

It was mesmerising watching them in the sun before flying off, and their leaving brings a gentle understanding as to how they can benefit young children’s idea of death – dragonflies never return underwater again but continue life in ‘ a different dimension’, unable to communicate with the nymphs still in the water.

Two empty dragonfly larva cases hanging under leaves of aquatic plants in pond
Empty Dragonfly larva cases attached to pond plants
Newly emerged Southern Hawker Dragonfly hanging to dry from larval case on pond plant
Young Dragonfly, or Teneral, drying out on it’s empty larva case

We Need to Talk About Death

With Caroline’s cancer diagnosis and my best friend dying of cancer in March, death has been heavily on my mind this year.

A relative gave me an intriguing booklet, Water Bugs and Dragonfiles, by Doris Stickney, which simply explains the concepts of death and the soul for the benefit of children.

It uses the dragonfly life cycle as it’s basis, and though it doesn’t quite cover my own thoughts on spirituality in death, it provides a useful tool to help children understand death, grief and bereavement & can help open up discussion with them about their feelings, emotion and the confusion surrounding death.

How The Dragonfly Lifecycle Helps With Death

Here’s the concept: –

UK Dragonflies live from about two weeks to a couple of months on the wing, enough time to mate and lay eggs in water.

The eggs hatch into larva, or nymphs, at between 2-5 weeks and several months, then live underwater for up to two years where they can moult 15 times. This is crucial. Their life is underwater for that whole period.

In the right temperature and weather conditions the nymphs climb up the stems of aquatic plants.

Above the water line the nymphs attach themselves to stems or leaves where the transformation to dragonfly takes place.

They hang for several hours to dry then fly off to hunt other insects, mate, lay eggs and they live a completely new lifer in the air, and eventually die. This period of their life is solely above water.

They never return beneath the water.

The cycle repeats.

Dragonfly Wisdom

Doris Stickney’s Water Bugs and Dragonflies offers a child’s perspective on what the nymphs think and talk about under water when they see others disappearing up the plant stems. She describes how those leaving make a pact with those left behind to return and tell the others where they go, how they live and why as dragonflies they are unable to get back under the water. Obviously the pact is never fulfilled as the dragonflies can’t return under water to tell the others, and the remaining nymphs are lost and confused. The dragonflies are still alive even though the nymphs no longer see them.

It’s a great place to start discussion on the concepts of death, transformation and the soul. It may not work for everyone but it’s a beautiful story, perfectly pitched for young children during the stressful, trying times around bereavement.

I highly recommend it to anyone with children going through the trauma of bereavement.

Death, Grief and Bereavement Support

For help with adult grief and bereavement, see the website Bereavement UK for help, support and advice.

For help & support with child grief and bereavement contact Child Bereavement UK in the first instance.

There may be local counselling support groups in your area, such as Plymouth Bereavement Counselling Service

To add a link in this article to your local bereavement service please drop me a line on the Contact page with the relevant url and group name/location.

For more dragonfly facts, read on.

What is a Dragonfly?

dragonfly
ˈdraɡ(ə)nflʌɪ/
noun
noun: dragonfly; plural noun: dragonflies

1.

any predatory insect of the suborder Anisoptera, having a large head and eyes, a long slender body, two pairs of iridescent wings that are outspread at rest, and aquatic larvae: order Odonata. See also damselfly

2.

any other insect of the order Odonata
Semi-dried Southern Hawker Dragonfly hanging from net large
This one is hanging from the anti-heron net over the pond!

Dragonfly Facts

  • Dragonflies have four wings
  • They can fly sideways, backwards, even hovering for a minute by moving each wing separately, creating incredible agility of flight
  • Dragonflies always keep their wings open at rest, whereas Damselflies close theirs
  • Dragonflies are known by different names around the world. A good one, if true, is linked to the ancient Celts – Big Needle of Wings!
  • They do not have a sting nor bite humans though they do have teeth to devour prey
  • Dragonflies have almost 360 degree vision, with 30,000 facets to their eyes
  • There are 30 species of UK and Ireland dragonfly and some 5,000 worldwide
  • The fastest recorded dragonfly was 36 mph in Australia

When and Where to Spot UK Dragonflies?

The best time to see dragonflies on the wing is June to September and Collins do a great basic spotters photo guide, British Insects, for identification.

This useful chart from the British Dragonfly Society shows where to spot the various species and please see the brilliant ID comparison image I’ve included below if you’re not sure which dragonfly you’ve seen.

Dragonfly Identification

This brilliant montage is courtesy of John Curd who put it together for UK Dragonflies & Damselflies (see link below). It’s a great comparison for the UK Hawker dragonflies. Many thanks for sharing your image John.

Image of various dragonflies in a row for ID purposes
John Curd’s excellent dragonfly identification aid

Wildlife Gardening for Dragonflies

If you have a garden pond large enough you may be able to attract dragonflies. To ensure that metamorphosis can take place the pond must have tall water plants with straight stems for the nymphs to climb and attach to. For more on wildlife gardening see my Gardening pages.

More Dragonfly Information

For more dragonfly details and to record sightings, see the British Dragonfly Society or join the Facebook group UK Dragonflies & Damselflies.