Hard Realities

How children face social, cultural, and economic hurdles

How Do Children Comprehend the Concept of Death?

A child’s understanding of death depends on experience and developmental level.

Last week, I ran across a DVD of the animated Disney classic The Lion King. In the movie, there is an explicit death of a protagonist character, Mufasa.  This death scene and the recent mass shootings in the United States that have been reported all over the television news makes me ponder the following question: “How do children comprehend the concept of death?”

Death is an aspect of life that is not only inevitable but also painful, especially for children. Children do not have the knowledge or experience that adults have and they are unprepared to deal with the death of a loved one or even of a beloved cartoon character in a movie.

Children’s Understanding of Death 

In general, children’s comprehension of death depends on two factors: experience and developmental level. Children’s experiences with death (i.e., actual experience and what they have been told about death) are critical to their understanding of it. They also do not have enough life experience to realize that death is inevitable for all living things. Children may not understand that death is permanent and that it cannot be “fixed” or reversed.

In many sectors of American society, children under 5 years old do not understand that death is final and inevitable. Children, between 5 and 9 years old, who do acknowledge the permanence and inevitability of death see it as something that only applies to older adults. Some children who have an incomplete understanding of death often will fill in gaps in understanding with fantasy elements (often taken from the media). Furthermore, because they do not think abstractly, some young children do not understand the causality of death. 

At 10 years old, most children begin to understand that death is a universal, irreversible, and nonfunctional state (meaning that dead beings cannot do the things that the living do). Interestingly, even after children reach this level of understanding they might continue to struggle with the idea that death is final, possibly because of certain religious beliefs.  However, this may suggest a more mature understanding of death rather than a less mature one. Children with immature, binary concepts of death see people as either alive or dead, and do not consider the idea that there may be any other options based on religious values and ideas about afterlife. 

A Child’s Grieving Process 

The process of grieving after a loss and coming to understand death is a process that consists of psychological tasks that children progress through and eventually overcome.

  1. The first phase involves understanding what death is, knowing its characteristics, and being able to recognize when it has happened. At this phase, it is important for children to feel self-protected, meaning that they need to know that just because someone or something has died does not mean the child or his or her family is in any immediate danger.

  2. The middle phase involves understanding that death is a reality and accepting the emotions that come along with that realization. This may include reflecting on times spent with the deceased loved one and coming to terms with the fact that he or she is gone while still maintaining memories and an internal connection to that person. Thus, we should not give children the false hope that a loved one may “come back” after death, and we should not discourage them from remaining emotionally attached to the deceased individual. This phase shows a marked difference in the way that children and adults grieve. Many adults move through the process more quickly than children do because they may understand and have more actual experience with the concept of death. Thus, many adults do not have to spend as much time figuring out what has happened when a loved one is suddenly gone, as would a child.

  3. The last phase of this process involves a reorganization of a child’s sense of identity and his or her relationships with others and with the environment. The child invests emotionally in relationships with others without being overly afraid of losing that person to a death. At this phase, a well-adjusted child still remembers the loved one without fearing excessively that others will die and is able to cope with those memories and any sadness associated with them.

The amount of research done on children’s understanding of death is very limited. Many death educators propose some form of death education for children; but how do we initiate this type of education?

References

Cox, M.; Garrett, E.; & Graham, J. A. (2005). Death in Disney films: Implications for children’s understanding of death. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 50, 267-280.

 

James A. Graham, Ph.D., is a professor of Developmental Psychology at The College of New Jersey and author of Children of Incarcerated Parents: Theoretical, Developmental, and Clinical Issues. more...

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