Death is inevitable, and a natural part of life. It is an occurrence that evokes different reactions from children and adults alike. Both usually need time and understanding to process the concept. The grieving process is much more different in children than in adults. Unlike adults, children lack the mental capacity to comprehend and process death. Parents often try to shield their children from the perceived dark and evil nature of death yet it is an occurrence that they will be faced with either in the form of the death of a loved one, a neighbor, a classmate or even a pet. A parent's knowledge of how children respond to death is key to knowing how to guide a child through the grief process and be sensitive to what they feel during that period.
Children tend to learn from what they are told by others, how they interpret it and what they experience. They have no direct experience of what death means and what happens after it occurs. Their thinking is, therefore, influenced by their parent's, friends and others notions of it. In today's pluralistic society, children are exposed to different and contradictory perspectives on death and its meaning which help them form ideas (Zee & Lovat, 2012). Children with religious influences in their lives will regard death as the start of another life that is independent of the biological processes that characterize this life while children with a more materialistic perspective are likely to view death as the end of all life (Zee & Lovat, 2012).
Consequently, a child comprehends death based on its inevitability, finality, irreversibility, and causality. Death is a natural process that no human being can avoid. Mostly, children have not lived long enough to understand that death is part of the cycle of life: it is something that must occur. For a child to comprehend the idea of finality, they have to be mature enough to develop a concept of time and permanence. They then understand that death is a permanent and irreversible condition. Childhood experiences involve the mending of broken toys or things the children consider valuable. This impacts on their perceived notion that death can be reversible. Finally, causality means that a child attributes death to a certain negative behavior and may experience feelings of guilt or blame when a death occurs naturally (Willis, 2002).
Also, a child's understanding of death is influenced by his or her age and developmental level. An infant to a child of two years lacks the cognitive capability to comprehend death. They tend to function in the present and become aware of the absence of any significant adult and respond with discomfort, constant crying, irritability, decreased activity and changes in sleeping and eating patterns. A preschool aged child between two to four years views death as reversible and temporary due to their inability to grasp the concept of "forever". They react through a brief but intense outbursts. They become concerned when the person they have formed basic attachments with disappears. They also respond to their loved one's emotional reactions and may get confused, wet the bed, become clingy, throw tantrums and so on (Vitas Healthcare, 2016).
Children in early childhood between the ages of four to seven believe that everything revolves around them and may sometimes blame themselves for the death of a loved one due to their negative thoughts and feelings. They believe death can be avoided. They respond through repetitive questions about death or the deceased's whereabouts. They often express their feelings through play rather than verbally. Sometimes they may appear unaffected or respond through anger, confusion, difficulty eating and sleeping (Vitas Healthcare, 2016).
Children in their middle years between the ages of seven and ten visualize death in the form of the boogeyman or a ghost but also understand that death is final and universal. They respond through anger , sadness,or may become indifferent and withdrawn, regress, depressed, in shock and so on. Finally, pre- adolescent children between the ages of ten and twelve try to comprehend both the emotional and biological process of death and are better able to understand the facts than the feelings surrounding the death. They respond through masking their feelings so as not to appear different and vulnerable among their peers. They may exhibit anger, bullying, outbursts, indifference and isolation from their peers. They also tend to ask questions about the death and its consequences (Vitas Healthcare, 2016).
Different methods have been devised to help parents to talk to and teach their children about death. A common method devised by scholars is the incorporation of themes of death in children literature. These stories take the form of fairy tales and deal with the concept, meaning, and consequences of death. These tales often provoke questions and curiosity in a child's mind and they end up asking questions about the meaning of the death of a character in their story books. The pictures and illustrations used in the literature further explain to the child the whole process of death and even introduces concepts like burial, cremation and memorials. Some families in indigenous communities involve children in ritualistic activities like the making and flying of kites to symbolize the death of a loved one. These ritualistic activities help the children remember the dead, reinforce collective solidarity and identity between the living and the dead and also act as a reaffirmation of the living communities (Clement & Jamali, 2016).
While providing the support and assistance to understand death, parents should do it in bits. From infants up to three years of age, parents should not mention the idea of death. Instead, they should instill coping behaviors to their children. From 3 to 6 years, parents should start helping their children to read children stories on death and loss, confront the magical thinking that children may have observed from cartoons as well as to keep modeling the coping behaviors. That way, the parents triggers children curiosity, and they can start asking more and more questions about death.
In conclusion, the concept of death is one that is sensitive and which can cause adverse effects on a child if not handled with care. Whether or not a child understands and copes with death depends on how the parent explains the occurrence to the child and also how the parent reacts to the death. With the numerous literature available that illustrate the concept of death, the parents are able to help their children to comprehend and come to terms with death no matter how young they are.
Clement, L. D., & Jamali, L. (2016). Global Perspectives on Death in Childrens Literature. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.
Vitas Healthcare. (2016). Childrens Developmental Stages: Concepts of Death and Responses to Grief. Retreived on April 25, 2016 from http://www.vitas.com/resources/grief-and-bereavement/child-development-stagesWillis, C. A. (2002). The Grieving Process in Children: Strategies for Understanding. Educating, and Reconciling Childrens Perceptions of Death. Early Childhood Education Journal, June 2002, Vol. 29, Issue 4, pp 221 226.
Zee, T., Lovat, T. J. (2012). New Perspectives on Religious and Spiritual Education. Waxman.
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