Very few children make it through to adulthood without experiencing death. Certainly, nearly all children will face the death of a beloved pet. However, most children also will have a family member, typically a grandparent or other extended family member, pass on.
In the worst case scenario, a child loses an immediate family member of one of his or her peers dies in a truly untimely manner. No matter the situation, adults in a child’s life, particular parents and teachers, are called upon to assist a child in grieving the death of someone in his or her life.
Nancy Gibbs, the highly-regarded essayist and now the managing editor for Time magazine, succinctly noted how to succeed in relating to a child who has had a loved one pass on. In this regard, she made reference to the iconic television program Sesame Street as an example of how children can be reached appropriately during challenging times. Gibbs remarked:
“Sesame Street’s genius lies in finding gentle ways to talk about hard things – death, divorce, danger – in terms that children understand and accept.”
A key to assisting a child grieve and process the passing of a loved one begins with an appreciation of how a child comprehends death. Armed with information about how a child understands death lays the foundation upon which you can provide invaluable support to that young person during what is likely to be a very challenging time.
Primary Factors Underpinning a Child's Understanding of Death
A comprehensive study entitled Death in Disney Films: Implications for Children’s Understanding of Death discusses in detail the foundational factors upon which a child’s comprehension of the loss of a loved one is built. The study explicitly enumerates two foundational factors:
- developmental level
Although the study technically only delineates these two factors as the foundational principles upon which a child understands dying and death, the study did not overlook another factor that definitely comes into play. That factor is a more generalized cultural difference in understanding death. In this study, researchers contended children in different countries do not necessarily understand death in the same manner.
This trio of elements, developmental level, experience, and culture, provide the prelude upon which the broader discussion of how a child understands death at different stages.
Turning first the cultural implications impacting a child’s understanding of death, this article focuses on youth in the United States. Customs and traditions surrounding death among people more generally in the United States differ, and sometimes sharply so, from those of individuals in other nations. Some of these distinctions are rooted in more broad cultural traditions, others in religious or spiritual practices. A note must also be made that as the United States is a diversely populated nation, there are some different derivations associated with dying and death within the country that do impact the understanding of death by some children. Nonetheless, there are some more general beliefs, customs, and practices associated with dying and death in the United States that are fairly constant and consistent.
Second, experts in the field of child development have established certain age-based milestones for children. This article relies on these developmental milestones in discussing a child’s understanding of death. There is a caveat to the utilization of these milestones, however. Developmental milestones, and their associated ages, are approximations only. They provide general age parameters at which a child will have a certain understanding of dying and death. With that noted, these developmental milestones are somewhat fluid and serve an illustrative purpose more than anything else.
Finally, the specific life experience of a child of a certain age plays a role in his or her understanding of death. For example, a young child who loses a person close to him or her will understand what has happened in a different light if that child has lost a pet to death previously.
The Particulars of a Child's Understanding of Death and the Grieving Process
Fully appreciating how a child understands death requires an associated appreciation of how a child grieves the loss of a loved one. Gaining recognition of how a child understands death is enhanced by appreciating how a child grieves the loss of a loved one.
A tremendous amount has been written about the five stages of grief, associated with dying and death, propounded by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This scheme remains the most widely utilized when it comes to analyzing and discussing the grieving process. With that noted, some research suggests that these five stages of grief do not provide the best template for organizing how a child grieves.
In an attempt to better understand how a child understands death and grieves, some experts in the realm of child psychology and grief recovery suggest there are there primary stages to a child’s grief process, according to Psychology Today.
The first phase of the grieving process for a child is coming to a general knowledge of the characteristics of death and being able to recognize death when it occurs.
The middle phase of the death-related grief process for a child is some understanding that death is a reality, that death somehow is a part of the overall cycle of life. Death is natural.
Understanding Death Under the Age of FiveWith almost no exceptions, children under the age of five have a fairly fixed, and incorrect, understanding of death. Almost to a child, children under the age of five have absolutely not concept that death is final. In addition to now appreciating that death is final, children in this age group have no understanding of the finality of death. This limited, indeed utter lack of, understanding about death presents particular challenges to an adult must address dying and death with a child under the age of five years. Strategies to discuss death with children of different ages is presented later in this article.
Understanding Death Between the Ages of Five and Nine
Many, but not all, children between the ages of five and nine do acknowledge both the inevitability and permanence of death. Some children do not advance into this level of understanding by the age of five. Others are not even fully at this point by the age of nine. However, the majority of children in this age category do generally appreciate that death is inevitable and death is permanent.
With that noted, even children who have reached the point where the essentially understand the inevitable and permanence of death do not have complete understanding of these two factors. In some situations, when a child hasn’t formed a complete, factual understanding of the inevitability and permanence of death, a child will fill in this lack of understanding with what might best be called fantasy elements. In many cases, these fantastical fillers are extracted from the media, particularly including films, television programming, and video games.
One key consideration to bear in mind when it comes to how children between the ages of five and nine understand death involves abstract thought. Children in this age group are developing a capacity for abstract thought, but really do not possess that capacity.
Because of a child’s limitation in regard to abstract thought, a child between the ages of fine and nine will not understand the causality of death. In other words, due to a limitation in an ability to think abstractly, a child is not going to fully understand how a certain illness can result in death. More significantly as far as a child is concerned, a young person between the ages of five and nine likely lacks the ability to limit the implications of a person’s death. When a child experiences the death of a loved one, that child is likely to conclude that he or she and everyone else he or she cares about is at serious risk of dying.
Understanding Death Over the Age of 10
By the time children reach the age of 10, they nearly always begin to understand three factors about death:
- death is universal
- death is irreversible
- death is a nonfunctional state
In general terms, by the age of 10, a child typically understands that everyone dies. He or she also understands that when a person dies, that individual will not come back to life and that a deceased individual is completely nonfunctioning.
There is one caveat to a child coming to an understanding that death is final. Oftentimes, this does stem from a child’s training in a particular religious practice or faith that maintains that an afterlife of some sort exists.
If a child believes that death is not final because of religious or spiritual beliefs, and if that child believes that existence takes place in some other place or form, this usually represents a more mature understanding of death as opposed to a less sophisticated one. This type if thinking suggests that a child has more than a binary concept of life and death. Rather, it demonstrates more complex thinking, including more complex options regarding overall existence in the universe, or even beyond.
Understanding Death for a Newborn to a Three-Year Old Child
In order to round out the discussion of how a child responds to death at a particular age, doubling back to the first years of life is important. Time and again, parents of infants and toddlers believe their child is exhibiting a powerful response when a person close to them dies. In reality, despite a parent’s best thoughts about the innate abilities of a particular child, a newborn to three-year old has absolutely no understanding of death.
With that made abundantly clear, it is important to note that an infant or toddler’s emotional state very well may change in the aftermath of someone close to that child dying. What you must understand that what occurs is not the direct result of a person’s death. Rather, an infant or toddler may experience obvious emotional changes after someone dies because that child is responding to other people around him or her. For example, if an infant or toddler’s grandparent dies, the child’s mother or father may be distressed. The emotions being experienced by the parent impact the young child, many times in a demonstrable manner. However, and again, it is vital to keep in mind that an infant or toddler is not having a direct emotional response to the death of another person.
Draw on Your Own Life Experiences to Understand a Child's Understanding of Death
Not everyone can readily recall how they responded to and evaluated the death of a loved one when he or she was a child. What a surprising number of people can recall with significant clarity is what occurred when they lost their first pet. Many times, a child experiences the death of a pet before he or she loses an adult in his or her life.
If you can focus, at least to some degree, on how you reacted and responded to the death of your first pet as a young child, you actually provide yourself a useful backdrop to aid you in coming to a better appreciation of how your own child, or a child in your charge, understands death.
The story of Rocky the pet turtle helps to illustrate the point, and underscores how you can make a child’s understanding of death a more concrete reality for you as an adult. Rocky actually was this writer’s first pet, except for a goldfish or two, as a child. Rocky was my pride and joy.
In time, Rocky passed away. However, that was not my immediate response as a five year old child. I had seen somewhere that turtles hibernated. Even as an adult, I don’t know if they do. I never researched the issue. But, that is what I believed as a child.
The thought that Rocky was dead was the farthest thing from my initial reaction to the death of the turtle. My parents were wise enough to approach the passing of Rocky within my own mindset as a very young child. They were quite certain that Rocky was dead, but were willing to spend some time to let me explore my sincerely held belief that the little fellow was in for a long slumber.
Ultimately, as a five year old, I came to realize that Rocky the turtle was in some state that was preventing him from moving at all. The state seemed more profound than what I understood as a young kid to be hibernation.
My parents finally eased me a step along the process and suggested we put him the ground. That suggestion was consistent with my very rudimentary understanding of hibernation. Together, we placed the turtle into the ground, but my parents took care not to refer to the process as burying the little crawler.
The point in reflecting on this story myself is that I truly am able to better appreciate what a child of a particular age is feeling in regard to the death of a family member or friend. Nearly any adult can take a similar tact, drawing from at least some juncture in their own childhood to pull up a relatively sharp recollection of death and an individual’s understanding of it when he or she was young.
Appropriate Discussion with a Child About the Meaning of Death
Ultimately, an adult must sit down and talk to a child directly to learn what he or she understands about death. Oftentimes, when the subject of discussion a serious issue with a child comes up, the phrase “age appropriate” conversation comes to mind. In the case of understanding what a child understands about death, it is not just an age appropriate discussion. It is also a discussion that is properly crafted based on a child’s development level, cultural background, and unique life experiences.
The story of Rocky provides a brief overview of how that type of discussion with a child, appropriately focused on his or her development level, cultural background, and unique life experiences can take place. This type of discussion requires patience and understanding on the part of an adult. Moreover, it also requires some level of research and reflection by a parent, or other adult, before this conversation takes place with a child who is confronted with the loss of a loved one for the first time in his or her life.
By having a keener appreciation of what a child understands about death at a given age, you place yourself in a far better position of being able to communicate effectively with that young person. Effective communication is fundamental to providing a child with proper and meaningful support through the overall grieving process following the death of a loved one, or even a pet for that matter. In the end, by coming to the clearest possible understanding of how a child is processing the loss of a loved one, you will best ensure that you appropriately and effectively support a young person during a challenging moment in his or her life.