Death is an unfortunate fact of life, and one some children are forced to confront all too soon.
Children Dealing With Death & Loss: Some facts & Statistics
- Around 2.5 million people die each year in the U.S., leaving behind an average of 5 close loved ones.
- Your child is not alone. There are approximately 3.5 million children nation wide who are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000)
- Approximately 1 in 20 children experience the loss of a parent before their 18th birthday. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998)
- Throughout the Corona Virus Pandemic, an estimated 175,000 U.S. children lost a paren or other caregiving relative to Covid. Around the globe this number had reached 5 million in the first 20 months, according to a study in The Lancet.
A Child’s Comprehension of Death
It’s common for children – and young children especially–to struggle with the comprehension of death. Many experts have pegged the age of six as a cutoff date; children younger than six tend to be unable to fully grasp death while children older than six tend to have a more mature understanding of the concept. But this is less a firm developmental stage than a loose guideline. Children mature at different stages, and what they grasp is also dependent upon their own experiences with death. Furthermore, the concept of death itself is less a realization that comes to someone than it is a series of stages of understanding, one that comes to a person bit by bit over the course of life. Even adults struggle with exactly what death is. Is it the loss of consciousness? Is there an afterlife? What happens when we die? Does our spirit go on? Where does it go? Do the dead “feel” or think? Do they become angry or sad that they died?
There are two basic categories of understanding death. The first regards mastering the most basic fundamentals:
Stage 1: Understanding that Death Is Permanent
Young children often ask when the deceased person is going to wake up again or come back to life. They may ask where mom or dad is at, and seem confused when you try to explain. They may continue to attribute biological needs to the deceased, and get upset over their body being buried or cremated. They fail to realize that death is a permanent thing; that once dead a person never becomes otherwise. It’s irreversible, and death means that biological needs and desires no longer apply.
Some children will grasp these concepts quite easily; early enough that it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact earliest date. The earliest measurements (3-years-old) reveal that some young children are able to understand this. The next stage is much more difficult, and continues to develop throughout life.
Stage 2: Understanding Concepts of Consciousness
Do dead people think? Do they feel? Does their spirit leave the body? Can they look down on us and see what we do? Do the dead know that we love them? Is there a heaven and hell? Reincarnation? Or is death simply the end of it all, a demise where consciousness ends to never return?
The second stage involves grappling with theories of consciousness, and this is the aspect that children have a much tougher time with. No surprises there…if you noticed, the questions on this list are ones that even adults have difficulties with. If you think concepts related to infinity or defining consciousness or awareness give you a headache; imagine what they do to children. Such intangible concepts are what pose the greatest challenges to children trying to understand death, and these abstract concepts are what young children are developmentally disadvantaged in understanding.
An experiment by Bering & Bjorklund (2004) provides insight into how children grapple with the concepts of death. They presented 200 3to 12-year-olds with a puppet show addressing death concepts. The kids saw a story about a baby mouse, which was out for an innocent stroll in the woods. “Just then,” they were told, “he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby mouse is not alive anymore.”
The children were then probed with questions to determine their understanding about death. They were asked questions such as “Does baby mouse still want to go home? Does he feel sick? Can he still smell the flowers?” Even the youngest children in the bunch – the preschoolers-tended to have a firm grasp that death meant biological cessation. For example, they knew that dead baby mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow into an adult mouse. In fact, 85% of the youngest kids even realized that his brain no longer worked.
Therefore, as Jesse Bering writes, “one couldn’t say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather, they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.” (Bering, 2006) It’s what that knowledge means, or rather, how to develop that knowledge into a frame of mind that provides adequate comprehension of death, which gives them problems.
The younger children in the study (three to five-year-olds) were significantly more likely to think in terms of psychological continuity than were the older children. They understood what death means in physical terms, but translating that knowledge into what it means in psychological terms is much more difficult. Death poses the same kind of dilemma that imagining a Universe with neither a beginning nor end might pose to an adult. We can know what it means in theory, but wrapping our minds around something that breaks the rules of everything we’ve ever experienced in the world (all things have a beginning and an end) is a difficult mental task. It’s the same sort of general feeling young children get when trying to comprehend death.
Children develop a concept referred to by psychologists as “person permanence.” As babies, we learn that people don’t cease to exist just because we can’t see them. We learn to assume that the people we know are always off somewhere doing something. This forms a powerful basis for our thinking, and one which often stays with us. “We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died,” writes Jesse Bering (2006, p. 41). “This inability is especially the case of course, for those whom we were closest to and whom we frequently imagined to be actively engaging in various activities when out of sight.” As a child grows, this inability to comprehend psychological impermanence ends up getting warped into a number of cultural teachings (heaven, hell, souls, resurrection, spirits, etc.) that reinforce this concept of person permanence. (Bering, 2006) So, what starts out as an inability of comprehension gets replaced by active, conscious beliefs that reinforce the idea of person permanence. Concepts of person permanence are generally well established by age 3 or 4.
Some psychoanalysts suggest that pre-adolescent children aren’t capable of overcoming their primitive defenses to death, such as denial and repression. Therefore, it is claimed, they aren’t able to successfully tolerate the pain of permanent separation. (Osterweis, Solomon & Green, 1984) Attachment theorists have suggested this puts them at risk for hasty and superficial processing of the loss, which leaves them vulnerable to persistent distress. While this theory is somewhat contested, and would surely fall short of being a universal developmental fact, there is likely a certain degree of truth to it. This means that some children may not follow a linear progression in grieving, but rather endure an ongoing struggle with it that includes peaks and valleys, developmental progress and regression, with these peaks and valleys leveling out with the passage of time. This can be discouraging to parents, because it may seem as though their child moves forward and then regresses, or otherwise displays erratic behavior. One moment they may be drowning amongst tears in the corner, and the next acting as though they don’t care or pretending as though nothing has happened. This occurs because children may approach the x grief process in doses they can tolerate, switching back and forth between avoidance of the issue and grieving. If this is their style of coping, try your best to roll with the punches.
Sometimes even older children who have mastered stage 1 concepts may still revert back and ask stage 1 questions. This comes not from their inability to grasp death as permanent and the end of biological life, but from a failure to grasp the m next set of questions about what it all means. When a child asks something like: “Is mom comfortable where she’s at? Is it warm there?” it’s not necessarily because they believe she still has physical needs but because they’re trying to form concepts related to her psychological or spiritual state of wellbeing. What they’re looking for is a way for you to help them solidify these intangible concepts in their mind, and replace tangible beliefs (life, physical existence) by working to develop or establish more solid intangible ones (heaven, soul, spirit, or other dimensions, etc.)
The prior information aside, for the most part, children tend to grieve in ways that are very similar to adults. John Bowlby (1980) showed similarities in grief responses between adults and children even as young as 9 months of age. The break of an attachment bond is what causes/ contributes to grief, and this is something both adults and children experience in similar ways, with similar symptoms. So children are capable of experiencing grief symptoms from the moment they form such a bond with a person. Other research has shown a common pattern of depression and anxiety symptoms among toddlers (Kranzler et al., 1990), prepubescent children (Silverman & Worden, 1992), and adolescents (Gray, 1987) that is similar to the grieving patterns of adults. So all in all, use your own intuition/struggles as a guide in talking with them, because it’s likely that they’ll be struggling to come to grips with many of the same issues associated with death that you are.