Children and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death

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Parents often feel uneasy and unprepared in responding to their children’s curiosity about death. Studies indicate that many parents felt they had not been guided to an understanding of death in their own childhood and as parents either had to improvise responses or rely on the same evasive techniques that had been used on them. It is useful, then, to give attention to the attitudes of adults before looking at the child’s own interpretations of death.

By ROBERT KASTENBAUM

The Innocence of Childhood

Two contrasting developments occurred as a prosperous middle class arose during the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-eighteenth century. In the past children had been either economic assets or liabilities depending upon circumstances, but seldom the focus of sentiment. Now both children and childhood were becoming treasured features of the ideal family, itself a rather new idea. By Victorian times (the period of the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901), the family was viewed as a miniature replica of a virtuous society under the stern but loving auspices of God. Instead of being regarded primarily as subadults with limited functional value, children were to be cherished, even pampered. Frilly curtains, clever toys, and storybooks written especially for young eyes started to make their appearance. The idea of childhood innocence became attractive to families who had reached or were striving for middle-class success and respectability. Fathers and mothers had to meet obligations and cope with stress and loss in the real world, while it was considered that children should be spared all of that. It was believed that children cannot yet understand the temptations and perils of sex or the concept of mortality and loving parents should see to it that their children live in a world of innocence as long as possible.

Furthermore, Sigmund Freud suggested that in protecting their children from awareness of death, then, parents, in a sense, become that child and vicariously enjoy its imagined safety and comfort.

One of history’s many cruel ironies was operating at the same time, however. Conditions generated by the Industrial Revolution made life miserable for the many children whose parents were impoverished, alcoholic, absent, or simply unlucky. The chimney sweep was one of the most visible examples. A city such as London had many chimneys that needed regular cleaning. Young boys tried to eke out a living by squeezing through the chimneys to perform this service. Many died of cancer; few reached a healthy adulthood. While mothers or fathers were reading storybooks to beloved children, other children were starving, suffering abuse, and seeing death at close range in the squalid alleys.

Children so exposed to suffering and death did not have the luxury of either real or imagined innocence; indeed, their chances for survival depended on awareness of the risks. Many children throughout the world are still exposed to death by lack of food, shelter, and health care or by violence. Whether or not children should be protected from thoughts of death, it is clear that some have no choice and consequently become keenly aware of mortality in general and their own vulnerability in particular.

Children’s Death-Related Thoughts and Experiences

Encounters with death are not limited to children who are in high-risk situations, nor to those who are emotionally disturbed. It is now well established that most children do have experiences that are related to death either directly or indirectly. Curiosity about death is part of the normal child’s interest in learning more about the world. A goldfish that floats so oddly at the surface of the water is fascinating, but also disturbing. The child’s inquiring mind wants to know more, but it also recognizes the implied threat: If a pretty little fish can die, then maybe this could happen to somebody else. The child’s discovery of death is often accompanied by some level of anxiety but also by the elation of having opened a door to one of nature’s secrets.

Child observation and research indicate that concepts of death develop through the interaction between cognitive maturation and personal experiences. Children do not begin with an adult understanding of death, but their active minds try to make sense of death-related phenomena within whatever intellectual capacities they have available to them at a particular time. Adah Maurer, in a 1966 article titled “Maturation of Concepts of Death,” suggested that such explorations begin very early indeed. Having experienced frequent alternations between waking and sleeping, some three-year-olds are ready to experiment with these contrasting states:

In the game of peek-a-boo, he replays in safe circumstances the alternate terror and delight, confirming his sense of self by risking and regaining complete consciousness. A light cloth spread over his face and body will elicit an immediate and forceful reaction. Short, sharp intakes of breath, and vigorous thrashing of arms and legs removes the erstwhile shroud to reveal widely staring eyes that scan the scene with frantic alertness until they lock glances with the smiling mother, whereupon he will wriggle and laugh with joy. . . . his aliveness additionally confirmed by the glad greeting implicit in the eye-to-eye oneness with another human. (Maurer 1966, p. 36)

A little later, disappearance-and-reappearance games become great fun. Dropping toys to the floor and having them returned by an obliging parent or sibling can be seen as an exploration of the mysteries of absence and loss. When is something gone for good, and when will it return? The toddler can take such experiments into her own hands—as in dropping a toy into the toilet, flushing, and announcing proudly, “All gone!” Blowing out birthday candles is another of many pleasurable activities that explore the riddle of being and nonbeing.

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This popular image of the Kennedy family taken during John F. Kennedy’s funeral shows John Jr. paying tribute to his father with a salute.

The evidence for children’s exploration of death-related phenomena becomes clearer as language skills and more complex behavior patterns develop. Children’s play has included death-themed games in many societies throughout the centuries. One of the most common games is tag and its numerous variations. The child who is “It” is licensed to chase and terrorize the others. The touch of “It” claims a victim. In some versions the victim must freeze until rescued by one of those still untouched by “It.” The death-related implications are sometimes close to the surface, as in a Sicilian version in which a child plays dead and then springs up to catch one of the “mourners.” One of the most elaborate forms was cultivated in the fourteenth century as children had to cope with the horrors of the Black Death, one of the most lethal epidemics in all of human history. “Ring-around-the-rosy . . . All fall down!” was performed as a slow circle dance in which one participant after another would drop to the earth. Far from being innocently oblivious to death, these children had discovered a way of both acknowledging death and making it conform to the rules of their own little game.There are many confirmed reports of death awareness among young children. A professor of medicine, for example, often took his son for a stroll through a public garden. One day the sixteen-month-old saw the big foot of another passerby come down on a fuzzy caterpillar he had been admiring. The boy toddled over and stared at the crushed caterpillar. “No more!” he said. It would be difficult to improve on this succinct statement as a characterization of death. The anxiety part of his discovery of death soon showed up. He no longer wanted to visit the park and, when coaxed to do so, pointed to the falling leaves and blossoms and those that were soon to drop off. Less than two years into the world himself, he had already made some connections between life and death.

Developing an Understanding of Death

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The critically acclaimed Longfellow story deals with themes of death and bereavement.

Young children’s understanding of death is sometimes immediate and startlingly on target, as in the fuzzy caterpillar example. This does not necessarily mean, however, that they have achieved a firm and reliable concept. The same child may also expect people to come home from the cemetery when they get hungry or tired of being dead. Children often try out a variety of interpretations as they apply their limited experience to the puzzling phenomena associated with death. Separation and fear of abandonment are usually at the core of their concern. The younger the child, the greater the dependence on others, and the more difficult it is for the child to distinguish between temporary and permanent absences. The young child does not have to possess an adult conception of death in order to feel vulnerable when a loved one is missing. Children are more attuned to the loss of particular people or animal companions than to the general concept of death.

A pioneering study by the Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy, first published in 1948, found a relationship between age and the comprehension of death. Nagy described three stages (the ages are approximate, as individual differences can be noted):

  • • Stage 1 (ages three to five): Death is a faded continuation of life. The dead are less alive—similar to being very sleepy. The dead might or might not wake up after a while.
  • • Stage 2 (ages five to nine): Death is final. The dead stay dead. Some children at this level of mental development pictured death in the form of a person: usually a clown, shadowy death-man, or skeletal figure. There is the possibility of escaping from death if one is clever or lucky.
  • • Stage 3 (ages nine and thereafter): Death is not only final, but it is also inevitable, universal, and personal. Everybody dies, whether mouse or elephant, stranger or parent. No matter how good or clever or lucky, every boy and girl will eventually die, too.

Later research has confirmed that the child’s comprehension of death develops along the general lines described by Nagy. Personifications of death have been noted less frequently, however, and the child’s level of maturation has been identified as a better predictor of understanding than chronological age. Furthermore, the influence of life experiences has been given more attention. Children who are afflicted with a life-threatening condition, for example, often show a realistic and insightful understanding of death that might have been thought to be beyond their years.

The Adolescent Transformation

Children are close observers of the world. Adolescents can do more than that. New vistas open as adolescents apply their enhanced cognitive abilities. In the terminology of influential developmentalist Jean Piaget, adolescents have “formal operations” at their command. They can think abstractly as well as concretely, and imagine circumstances beyond those that meet the eye. This new level of functioning provides many satisfactions: One can criticize the established order, take things apart mentally and put them back together in a different way, or indulge in lavish fantasies. The increased mental range, however, also brings the prospect of death into clearer view. The prospect of personal death becomes salient just when the world of future possibilities is opening up.

Adolescents have more than enough other things to deal with (e.g., developing sexual role identity, claiming adult privileges, achieving peer group acceptance), but they also need to come to terms somehow with their own mortality and the fear generated by this recognition. It is not unusual for the same adolescent to try several strategies that might be logically inconsistent with each other but that nevertheless seem worth the attempt. These strategies include:

  • Playing at Death: To overcome a feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness, some adolescents engage in risk-taking behavior to enjoy the thrilling relief of survival; dive into horror movies and other expressions of bizarre and violent death; indulge in computerized games whose object is to destroy targeted beings; and/or try to impersonate or take Death’s side (e.g., black dress and pasty white face make-up worn by “goths”).
  • Distancing and Transcendence: Some adolescents engross themselves in plans, causes, logical systems, and fantasies that serve the function of reducing their sense of vulnerability to real death within real life. Distancing also includes mentally splitting one’s present self from the future self who will have to die. One thereby becomes “temporarily immortal” and invulnerable.
  • Inhibiting Personal Feelings: It is safer to act as though one were already nearly dead and therefore harmless. Death need not bother with a creature that seems to have so little life.

These are just a few examples of the many strategies by which adolescents and young adults may attempt to come to terms with their mortality. Years later, many of these people will have integrated the prospect of death more smoothly into their lives. Some will have done so by developing more effective defensive strategies to keep thoughts of death out of their everyday lives—until they become parents themselves and have to deal with the curiosity and anxiety of their own children.

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