How Does One Discuss Death With a Child?

July 2016. I capped my summer vacation with my visit to a hospice in San Leandro, a quaint town outside of Oakland, CA. The crisp dry heat of a California summer outside only made the quiet, numbing confines of the room all the more bittersweet. My grandmother, riddled with illness, maintained brilliance within an ace of death. She was on a tight schedule for hourly capsule meals. Relatives rotated in and out of the lobby, usually finding an excuse to leave every hour or so. With no car and a queue for goodbyes, I had ample time to sit and think- which turned to dwelling. I pulled out my notebook and pen.

I had been around similar circumstances before, but unattached, usually there for support for those I wasn’t directly related to. A death of a neighbor or neighborhood dropout couldn’t compare- this time was different. Yet I had been faced with death before, I had seen it happen firsthand, yet why was this any different? My fondest memories of Lura existed in the lessons she passed down- what she taught me over the time we spent together. But still, existential dread continued to creep into my writing space. This was the reality of the end, when one knocks on heaven’s door, where the coffin hits the dirt.

How does one explain this to a child, hell, explain this to an adult, to anybody? This, the ultimate taboo, the final journey, death itself;  I always accepted death as part of the cycle of life, absolute and inevitable, basically the underlying plot to Lion King (spoiler alert, sorry).

This bittersweet moment, this sickening prompt of our own limitation, accompanied by the simple fact that, life continues to go on after others die, the cycle continues (Wu-Tang forever).

A flurry of thoughts & justifications diverged on one another,

maybe this hospice was getting to me,

or was I simply looking too deep into this?I wish there was a guidebook to this, I wish someone had the answers I sought,why hasn’t anyone figured this whole death debacle out yet? I didn’t see much sense in asking others for input, as I knew no one truly has an answer for why we die, just guesses and spiteful humor.

Then I thought to myself for a second,

when did I first learn about death, and boy how shitty of a day that must’ve been.

Looking back now, I could’t say when or where I was first taught about death, or who told me. Being a psychology major, I didn’t hesitate on the offer to California, even at the expense of the daily visit. But a different mood settled in, maybe it was the smell. Had I been avoiding this topic or holding a fassad, an empty reassurance on a topic I really didn’t know how to discuss: dying.

In what way, then, is the best way to teach a child about death? I hear people talk about dying peacefully, being ready to die, regardless of their beliefs on the afterlife or destination of the human spirit. And not only was this state of mind achievable, it was quite common in many elderly people, hell people took pride in their acceptance of mortality, even if given the chance to live forever. All things considered, I formulated a question, more befitting and well-rounded, to better understand this topic myself, what would “they” say to a child.

How does one, preferably an adult, teach a child about death, and what major factors influence this teaching that helps a child best understand this concept and benefit from it, so that they too, reach their actualized state of a peaceful passing?

I started with some background research on early childhood development research, preferably on studies of how children begin to understand death for the first time. Champion psychologist Maria Nagy was the leading researcher in this field for nearly 50 years, dating back to World War II with children in war-torn eastern Europe.

She found three areas of concepts that effectively determine how children begin to understand death.

The first was the three primary facets, or stages to learning about mortality:

Permanence.

Also known as irreversibility, generally the first aspect of death that children learn is the notion that death is permanent, there is no coming back (unlike Wiley Coyote getting crushed by the anvil), at least there hasn’t been yet. After working with children via interviews with open interpretive questioning, she noted that around 10% of children before the age of 4 actually understand the notion of permanence and that after 4, this jumped to nearly 60%. This was also subject to change in the face of emotionally traumatic events, which can speed this process up as the cost of permanent emotional damage.

Nonfunctionally.

Though many children may understand relatively quickly that someone is dead, it takes a little longer, generally around ages 6-7 to understand that when someone dies, their body stops moving, forever. This is known as nonfunctionally, a concept that is explained in the word itself. This is tricking when child will ask at a funeral is the deceased can still dream, can they feel? The association between death and motion is generally not realized right away, but again, is subject to being sped up in the face of emotional trauma or certain living situations.

Universality.

The final stage, generally understood by age 7 or 8, is the understanding of life as a cycle, and James Earl Jones couldn’t have explained it better with his analogy to the antelopes, lions, and grass triangle. All living things (at least what we have encountered) have a beginning and end, even the planets and stars will cash their chips and fold, only to form beautiful planets & stars in their wake of chaos. In some way, we all are pieces of this cycle, and we all play our part one day. This one is my favorite as it gives comfort and some level of meaning to our existence, regardless of one’s beliefs. We eventually become a part of the planet, feeding its soil with our flesh and blood. It’s actually quite beautiful.

A child generally understands the all corners of mortality by the age of 7 or 8, so I would hope if they are not exposed to it before, whether from the sudden death of a family member or close compadre, then this would be a good age to bring this conversation up. But for this teaching, I would so much stress the child part of this, but more so the adult doing the teaching, and the environment that adult puts their child in. While it is fair to say there is no best age to learn about death, nor is it required one to be omnipotent on the subject of mortality, I know this:

Children look up to adults, particularly their parents and other close peers for strength and assurance, in times of death of and initial run-ins with dying, and it is not required but important to educate oneself spiritually and be actualized enough to help them do the same, to help them live their life to fullest, again regardless of what one believes. This, in my opinion, is the highest responsibility of a parent. While it is the decision of the parent on whether to shelter their child for sake of innocence or throwing into the reality of existence, there are things to consider:

  • Avoid, at all costs, using ambiguous terms when first describing death. Using terms like” going on a trip” or “going to sleep” only confuse and hinder a child in understanding death, and can be detrimental, especially if uncorrected in their later years. Say it straight, and don’t bullshit. Children are many things, but stupid is definitely not one of them.”
  • Be aware of how a child reacts to teaching them about death. If done too early, children may rely on defense mechanisms such as magical thinking, which is the child’s way of avoiding the harsh reality brought to their plate. Keep a close eye on them after going through this, especially for the first two weeks, and keep a close eye on how they come to terms.
  • Give children the choice on whether to believe in any form of religious or spiritual practice, teach them all forms they wish to know about and encourage open-minded understanding of each practice. Never force any religion on a child, let them develop their own understanding because when you’re dead and gone, they won’t give a rat’s ass about what you believe. All religions are beautiful in their own light, and everyone should be allowed the opportunity to study and choose what they want to believe.

One fact I will accept is that I too, one day, will die. I will be there, in that same spot, whether I cross the Jordan or give up the ghost and fade into black, it will happen eventually. Personally, I would like to believe the fear of death is the fear of the unknown, and it is illogical to fear the end. I have never been the most religious individual, but I wouldn’t be against other beliefs or the existence of an afterlife, whatever happens, happens. All I hope is that I stay true to my passions, and continue to seek self-actualization in my life, so that I too, may die peacefully, at ease.


Some other resources I found helpful on the subject:

Pleidian Mission by Randolph Winters

The falling of Freddie the Leaf

Lifetimes

1 Comment

  1. Thank you, this was very helpful. I have children approaching this age and there are a number of topics that I find controversial, death is one of them. And although the subject has come up at one point or another, I have postponed an upfront discussion for a more appropriate occasion.

    However, once when I told my daughter that when she and her sister get older, they will be as tall as me and we will look like three girlfriends, and she laughed at me and said “Mom, but how can that be, you’ll be gone when we’re that tall!”. She said it in such a calm manner, that I was shocked 🙂 But in a way I was glad, she was not dramatising it and when I analyse it I think this comes from the fairy tales that she’s heard a lot of, like Cinderella and Snow White, who both lost their moms early on and were then raised by step-moms.

    Anyway, now I’ve got some useful tips for the talk and I fully agree with you on the religion one. I’m also trying to teach them lucid dreaming, which in Tibetan traditions is the right preparation for the afterlife, but also a very good tool for life.

    Thanks again for the post and I’m wishing you peace and strength in the face of the changes! Namaste!

    Like

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