Talking to children about death

Adults are generally far more uncomfortable about discussing death and dying than children. Children begin to develop great curiosity about death as soon as they begin to experience make-believe deaths in fairy tales, games and television shows. Children pretend to be dead in games, they kill 'bad guys' in video games, and often discuss death freely with other children. Children usually talk as easily about death and dying as they discuss sports, favourite toys or foods they like. When someone they love dies, they are saddened by the death but may still have a lot of curiosity about the dead person and talk openly about their feelings. However, when children sense that an adult is uneasy discussing death, they may become uneasy themselves.

Although children have an understanding of death at a very early age, the way in which they understand it is often very different from 'mature' adult understandings of why people die and what then happens. The first studies of children's conceptions of death were undertaken during and after the Second World War, when many children lost a parent and researchers began to interview children systematically and ask them what they thought happens when a person dies. They concluded that very young children begin to understand death as being in a sleep-like state from which one can be awakened, as in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. For the youngest children, it is possible to avoid death by being adept or careful or having a good doctor. Death is not necessarily permanent. People can die and come back to life, just like the cartoon characters who are crushed by a truck and then miraculously go on as if nothing happened. According to under fives, people die because they take risks or are unlucky. Children of this age do not usually have a sense that all humans must die or that death can be caused by unavoidable illness. Dead people may be able to have thoughts and feelings and may be able to see and hear, but their abilities may be limited - for example, they may not be able to move or see very much because they are stuck in a dark coffin.

Research on what children think about death has often focused on stages of development. Although there are debates about whether there are clear cut-stages that apply to all children, researchers agree that children's understanding of death develops gradually and changes over time. Researchers often focus on the acquisition of specific sub-concepts of the understanding of death. Finality, the sense that a dead person cannot come back to life, is one of the first sub-concepts which children develop. Universality, the fact that everyone must and will die some day, is usually understood fairly early (by age 6-8). However, other sub-concepts, such as unpredictability - the notion that one can die at any time - and inevitability - that, regardless of what we do to escape death, we can still die - may not be acquired until much later. Furthermore, when children are asked, "What happens when you die?" it is very rare that death is conceived as a final state, devoid of thoughts and feelings. Some children repeat what they learn from parents or church when one asks about death, saying, for example, "you go to Heaven", but this can be because they think that is what adults expect rather than because they believe it. Usually if children are asked other questions, they readily admit that they think other things as well.

There is another characteristic of children's understanding of death which is important to bear in mind. Children are capable of believing several completely contradictory things at the same time. Adults are often dumbfounded when they observe this. For an adult, if you believe that you cannot come back to life when you die, you cannot also believe that if you have a good doctor or if you pray long enough a dead person can become alive. It is not unusual for a young child to describe exactly how the dead cannot see, hear or talk to living people, and then, a few minutes later, explain how a dead grandfather sees everything and is looking forward to seeing him win a sporting event. For this reason, people who talk about death with children may get frustrated because they think children are lying or saying anything that comes into their head. This is usually not the case. Children simply have a wonderful ability to believe several different things which adults have trouble accepting because they are logically incompatible.

It is useful for children to talk about death so that they can test whether their understanding is similar to what other children and adults think, and express feelings they may have kept inside about the death of a loved one. Children are rarely given this opportunity because most adults are hesitant to discuss death with them.

Children may have beliefs which, if not clarified, cause them needless problems. A child whose parent has died often feels guilty. No child is perfect and children sometimes have the primitive belief that because they were not as good as they could have been, their father or mother died. They sometimes feel angry, but learn very quickly that anger at the dead is something they should never express - it is all right to be sad but it is not all right to be angry at a parent for having abandoned you. In discussing death with children, it is important to help them view their feelings as normal by saying things like, "It is normal to feel angry when someone you love has died, because you think they abandoned you. But they couldn't help it. I'm sure they would have stayed alive if they could."

Usually discussions of death with children do not need much input from a parent or teacher. Children have a lot to say about the topic and are quick to react when another child expresses an unusual or less mature belief. Children are generally comforted by realizing that this sometimes taboo topic is really not as mysterious or frightening as some adults would lead them to believe.
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