How Children and Adolescents Accept Death
The way a child perceives death is uniquely based on their own understanding of death and how they respond to it. Their age alone will not determine their response. Their level of development is probably the biggest factor. After all, not all 5-year old’s will react like other 5-year old’s. Children can move from one level of development to the next at different rates, but they can still be broken down into general groups.
Babies that range from infancy to age 2 do not have the ability to understand death because it is an abstract concept (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). They live in the present. When one who was significant in their lives passes, babies are more aware of loss and separation, especially if it was someone they were around frequently. They will react to behaviors and emotions of other adults around them as well as any disruptions to their normal schedule. Their grief would include irritability, constant crying, change in eating or sleeping habits, weight loss and decreased activity.
The preschool age range of 2-4 consists of children who do not understand the ‘forever’ concept (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). To them, death is temporary and reversible. This means regardless of your attempts to explain that somebody is not coming back, they make ask you where their loved one is. To them, death is not something that is separate from life and it is not something that happens to them. So, the grieving process is typically short but very intense because they are still present-oriented. Their grief responses include “confusion, frightening dreams and night agitation, and regressive behaviors such as clinging, bed wetting, thumb sucking, inconsolable crying, temper tantrums and withdrawal from others (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.).” They also tend to continue to look for the despite being assured that they are not coming back.
Early childhood, ages 4-7 also view death as temporary and reversible (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). Sometimes they blame themselves for the death, especially if they had had negative thoughts or words exchanged before the passing of their loved one. “This ‘magical thinking’ stems from the belief that everything in their environment revolves around them and that they can control what happens” (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). They may also draw a connection between death and an occurrence or object where no connection exists. For example, a child bought a certain toy the same day their brother died, that child may attribute that toy to the cause of their brother’s death, especially if their cause of death was not explained. You might see family loss themes present as they interact with their dolls/action figures. This age range can also appear to be unaffected by death, like nothing has changed. This does not mean they do not know what has happened or that they have accepted it. They may just be unable to acknowledge a very painful reality. Anger, sadness, confusion and difficulty eating and sleeping and fear that other loved ones will leave them are also normal reactions (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.).
Ages 7-10, called the middle years, is when children start to see death as being both final and universal (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). Sometimes they visualize death as an actual being like the grim reaper or the boogeyman. Their curiosity will lead them to ask questions to, like “Do fingernails and hair keep growing when you die?”. Despite realizing that death can happen to anybody and there are many causes of death; they still do not usually think of it as something that happens to them or their loved ones. Their response to a death in the family may produce concern for how others are responding to the death or worry that other loved ones will die. Naturally responses to a death can result in anger, sadness, inability to concentrate in school, indifference, withdrawing and hiding feelings, shock, denial, depression, eating and sleeping changes and regression (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). Children this age have more coping strategies that they will use and might involve play acting or fantasizing how they might have changed the outcome. They may also assume roles, mannerisms or chores that the deceased used to perform. Idealizing the deceased is another way they maintain that bond with them (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.).
Pre-adolescents range in age from 10-12 and are like middle year children with some additions (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). This is the age range that children start establishing who they are, their own identities. They are also in the middle of getting independence from adults (especially parents) and building stronger ties with peers. When it comes to death, they do try to understand it from both a biological and emotional process, but they are better able to understand the facts of death than they are the feelings that surround that death (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.). In the grieving process they may hide their feelings so that they do not stand out from their peers for fear of being viewed as weak, so they make come off as indifferent. Displaying uncharacteristic behavior is also common. For example, anger outbursts, bullying, irritability, moodiness, indifference toward schoolwork, isolation and changes in eating or sleeping (Childrens Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses, n.d.).
Religion & Culture on Death
Another theme to follow up with regarding conceptions of death are the cultural differences that can determine one’s own conception (Cartaret, n.d.). Death is universal but each culture has its own way of perceiving and coping with death in a respectful manner. Religion in and of itself is a very big source for outlining a groups conception of death. Religion typically gives “meaning to the uncertainty, powerlessness and scarcity that death creates” (Carteret, n.d., par 5).
Religions like Christians and Muslims both believe that death is just a doorway to a more glorious place. A place where they get to live with God. “Both are also faiths springing from a single scripture, founder or sacred place (Carteret, n.d., par 6).” Christians and Muslims both see the physical life span as a time to prepare for eternal life. In Jewish tradition, they focus on what they see as the purpose of this earthly life by fulfilling their duties to god and their fellow man. Success means reward and failure means punishment (Carteret, n.d. par 6).
Ancestor worship would revolve around the idea that just because you no longer see the deceased, does not mean they are not alive in another world or reincarnated. This is especially common in Africa and Asia because their understanding is that life is not linear, but cyclical. Native Americans and Buddhists also believe that “the living co-exist with the dead” (Carteret, n.d. par 7). A central theme to this version is that the person that died had the ability to come back and curse, bless, give or take life. Many have special days where they worship, honor and/or remember the dead. One example is Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). They encourage visits from the non-living so that they can hear the prayers and comments that are directed to them, offerings are also common (Carteret, n.d.).
Hinduism is more of an umbrella term that describes a set of philosophies and way of life (Carteret, n.d.). Buddhism does have a single founder but it the Buddha is not prayed to in the way that God is. Though there are distinct differences between the two, neither of them sees death as being the end of your life. It is just the end of the body that we inhabit (Carteret, n.d.). They believe that the spirit stays and seeks attachment to a new body, therefore a new life. Buddhism calls it ‘kulpa’, which is a unit of time (Carteret, n.d.). This is where the person will be born again based on the accumulation of their negative and positive actions – karma’s doing. Both have very specific steps to take after the death of a loved one. For example, the corpse of a Buddhist should not be touched for 3-8 hours after breathing stops because the spirit lingers for a while (Carteret, n.d.). Hindus bathe, massage in oils and dress the corpse in new clothes so it can be cremated before the next sunrise (Carteret, n.d.).
In some cultures, showing grief, like wailing, is expected of mourners. It is thought that the more torment shown and the more people crying directly relates to the person being loved greatly. Rules in Egypt and Bali are opposite despite both being Islamic countries. In Bali women may be strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women are considered abnormal if they don’t nearly incapacitate themselves with extreme weeping (Carteret, n.d.).
Not all atheists have the same idea on what happens after death, but many agree that nothing happens (Nimmi, n.d.). There is no dogma or doctrine that goes with atheism, so they make no official claims regarding a person’s existence, or lack of, after death. Death is when your heart or brain stops functioning. There is not a soul that transcends the physical. They are dead; the body decays, nothing else. The only afterlife they can hope for, is living on in the memories of anybody they have left behind (Nimmi, n.d.).
In Japan, it is important not to show grief because death should be accepted as a time of liberation and not sorrow, and one should bear up under misfortune with strength and acceptance (Carteret, n.d.). This is because one should never do anything to make someone else uncomfortable.
In Latino cultures, it may be acceptable for women to wail, but men are not to show overt emotion because it is not macho (Carteret, n.d.). In China, they may hire professional wailers at funerals, odd as it sounds, but it was also a common practice in Victorian England.
In the end, no matter what your conception of death is, our tribute to those we loved is that we do not forget. They will always be in our hearts and in our memories. A universal lesson of death is that life is too short. For those left behind, death is sad, separation, sorrow and grief. Though it feels like it, it is not the end of the world. To conclude, death is a very final and sad time for those left behind. Finding the strength to accept it and move ahead will help you better adjust to a life without their physical presence. Loss and pain may never really go away, but we can learn to live with it cherish the memories we have. “Let us make the best of our loved ones while they are with us and let us not bury our love with death” (Wise words from Seneca, n.d.).