What Children Know About ‘Death’ — And How To Help Them Understand It Better

A vague and sugarcoated explanation will only make things worse for them.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Fourteen years ago, I watched a timeless film on HBO that taught me about real death. It was an unpleasant experience per se. Television is a usual medium for children to learn, but difficult topics like death may require further explanation from adults. Unfortunately, I felt that I had to deal with my accidental discovery of death by myself that it turned a PG-rated ’90s classic into the greatest nightmare of my childhood.

Children’s understanding of death develops differently. My sudden traumatic awareness of it could indeed have been avoided by proper monitoring. However, children are just naturally curious to not come across difficult topics such as death. They will eventually cross that road, and it would be helpful to have someone explain it to them as lightly and realistically as possible. They can learn about death from school, friends, or overheard adult conversations. The worst way a child can learn about death, however, is through personal experience — like death within the immediate and extended family.

My parents shielded me from the idea of death. It was an off-limits topic in our household. They considered death as a sensitive topic that should not be joked about or discussed in front of children. Like many kids, I had this notion that only old people die, and that death is simply about sleeping forever or booking a one-way trip to elsewhere. I was coddled in that kind of environment that I was frightened to even think of the word ‘death.’

Research shows that children start to have an understanding of death’s irreversibility at the age of three. This is the idea that when someone dies, they can never be alive again. I don’t think I was even aware of this fact at five years old. I watched a lot of Looney Tunes that defied every possible law of science. I was also never brought into wakes and informed about family deaths — probably because my parents tried to avoid having that tough conversation. In general, adults tend to explain death to children as if it’s a romantic reunion with Jesus. At the same time, there are countless children’s shows that redefine death as an ‘eternal slumber’ — like Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty. Children might not completely understand what death is, but feeding them with vague and sugarcoated explanations might cause more confusion and fear on their end.

The non-functionality aspect of death becomes apparent to children between the ages of five and seven. This is the idea that a dead person can no longer do things a living person can. As they develop their understanding of this aspect, they may ask questions like, does a dead person starve? Do they hurt? Can they dream? Research shows that before children learn the fact that death is universal, they tend to first believe that certain groups are protected from it, like their friends and family. I thought the same until a film where a young boy suddenly dies of bee stings made me realize that death is not exclusive to old, sickly people. It was the moment I learned that every living creature — plants, humans, and animals — will eventually die, including myself.

The film I’m talking about is Howard Zieff’s My Girl (1991), and I saw it when I was seven years old. It is about a young girl whose life revolves around death. Her mother dies giving birth to her, her father is a funeral director, and their house doubles as a funeral parlor. They have an embalming room in the basement that she inevitably develops an obsession with death. Despite her deep interest, she remains to have a rudimentary understanding of death — just like most kids. In her case, death was merely a family business — no more, no less. Eventually, she learns about its sad and ugly truth when a dear friend of hers suddenly dies. I really hate to be the bearer of film spoilers, but you literally had a solid twenty-nine years to watch it.

“Without a doubt, most children understand that some people die before they understand that they themselves will die,” — M. W. Speece & S. B. Brent

I was overwhelmed by my sudden knowledge of the unfiltered reality of death that I did not take it very well. To make things worse, I got really paranoid and feared that I might die anytime soon. It made me anxious that I would make up excuses to be taken to the hospital. One afternoon, a mosquito landed on my arm. I suppose anyone in their right mind would just try to kill it or shake it off. I, on the other hand, decided to be a drama queen about it that I suspected I might have Dengue Fever. I rushed home, called my mom’s office and begged her to take me to the doctor. There was also a time when I thought I dropped hand sanitizer on a hamburger I just bit. I was so convinced that it would poison me that I downed about a gallon of water and cried for two hours. At some point, I even feared sleep because I was scared of not waking up — or waking up and realizing that I turned into a ghost. I cried so much about the littlest things that I started to have actual chest pains, which made me fear for my life even more.

So, once the deadly question comes up, just answer it, and don’t feel the need to censor children from stories that touch the topic. It is also normal for them to be naturally curious about it even when a loved one hasn’t died, so expect the topic to come up repeatedly. In fact, researchers believe that children simply see death as a ‘terrifying state of nothingness.’ They do not necessarily understand its cause or associate it with adult concepts, such as religious beliefs. They simply fear the unknown.

My parents gave me an entirely sugarcoated and complicated explanation of death. It involved words and phrases such as sleeping for a very long time, went with [a relative that died earlier], went away, lost, and many others. Don’t do that. Children are not stupid, and wordplay will only confuse and mislead them. Just talk to them and ask them what they already know about it. Build on their knowledge and provide a brief and straightforward answer. Explain to them the different causes of death. At the same time, don’t forget to reassure them that being unwell does not immediately mean that they will die.

“it’s most helpful to explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, rather than launching into a complicated discussion of a particular illness: “Now that Uncle John has died, his body has stopped working. He can’t walk, run, eat or sleep any more, but he doesn’t feel any pain.” — BabyCentre

I had an unpleasant introduction to death, and I don’t really wish my childhood trauma on anyone — it’s emotionally bruising. I would have appreciated it if someone had just simply told me that everyone dies — and that it is a fundamental part of life as much as birth. This is also a reminder of the significant role of an open conversation to a child’s emotional maturity.

It’s helpful to openly discuss emotions when death is brought up. My grandmother died when I was nine. I was at home when she passed away, and I did not know how to react because everyone else masked their grief with a smile. We stayed in the viewing chapel for days, but I still never got the talk. The situation made me feel like crying is wrong and that I should never allow anyone to see me in such a vulnerable position. I did not immediately grasp my grandmother’s death, but when I did, I ended up crying myself to sleep for weeks. As the famous saying goes, “Grieving is an important part of healing.” Negative emotions frighten a child, but it is never a reason to shut the doors, and pretend that it does not exist. Explain to children that it is okay to be upset in the presence of death or any unpleasant circumstance. Life does not always work in our favor, and crying is useful to unload on negative or overwhelming emotions.

To be fair to parents, I personally think there’s no reason for children to know about death — unless they really need to. It’s an upsetting topic, and they have all their life to figure that out. Children lack the concept of time, which makes it difficult for them to grasp the idea of someone going away and never coming back. But just like the sex talk, they will eventually need a figure who will help them digest the truth about the circle of life. Death is a difficult subject to bring up with children. But it is also crucial to be very open and transparent to them. Adults tend to underestimate children and talk to them will all the aerobatic euphemisms when a concise and straightforward explanation will do just fine.

A conversation about death never gets easy. When a loved one leaves us, their absence leaves a gaping hole in our lives. We grieve because more time with them becomes impossible with death. It is a tradition for Jews to say “Zecher tzaddik livracha,” when remembering a deceased loved one. It means “the memory of the righteous is a blessing,” and I think it is a beautiful reminder that the memories we share with others will outlive us. Pixar’s Coco (2017) does a wonderful job of sending the message that our memories of a deceased love one keep them alive. Some people in our lives carry us in their hearts and minds, and we do the same with them.

Perhaps to share a memory is to love — and it is, indeed, a blessing. As we make children understand the concept of death, may we also teach them about the beauty of love, and the wonders it can do to our lives.

sources:

Death: how to talk about it with children. Raising Children Australia, 2017

Fritscher, Lisa. Helping Your Child With the Fear of Death. Very Well Mind, 2020

How to talk to your preschooler about death. BabyCentre, n.d.

Hughes, Virginia. When Do Kids Understand Death?. National Geographic, 2013

Jewish Ways Of Honoring The Dead. My Jewish Learning, n.d.

Longbottom, Sarah & Slaughter, Virginia. Sources of children’s knowledge about death and dying. The Royal Society, 2018

Speece, Mark & Brent, Sandor. Children’s Understanding of Death: A Review of Three Components of a Death Concept. Society For Research In Child Development, 1984

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