If death is inseparable from our humanity, from our birth, it is an abstract concept, difficult to understand for children, and which they can only gradually grasp. To understand death is to understand its relationship to life.
Sometimes questions about this arise by observing the world around us. For example, seeing tadpoles in a pond, a child will ask us: “Why do frogs exist? What happens when they die? And am I going to die too? »
To understand death is to accept its innate and definitive characteristics . It is to understand that death, on the one hand, is universal and that everything that lives dies; on the other hand, that it is irreversible and that when the body dies, it cannot come back to life. That the body loses all its abilities when it dies, such as the ability to think, learn or laugh. And it also involves understanding that there are external and internal causes of death.
A perception of death that evolves with the age of the child
Until about age 2, children do not recognize death as part of life and do not understand what it means to die. When a loved one dies, they may react as if nothing had happened, although they perceive the sadness or grief of others.
Between the ages of 2 and 5, they conceive of death as a temporary or reversible state. They often ask when Grandma will be back, because for them dying is not the end of life. At this age, they interpret the information they receive literally. Therefore, phrases such as “she is sleeping”, “she has gone to a better place” or “she has gone to heaven” can create misunderstandings or misconceptions.
Around the age of 5, they begin to understand what death means. Typical questions are: “Where do we go when we die, will I die one day, does it hurt to die?” Although curious, they may be disbelieving or discouraged when they realize that death is irreversible and universal. They often ask questions and worry about dying one day.
Around the age of 9, they understand that death is permanent and has a cause. And it is later, in adolescence, that the concept of death finally begins to be elaborated in everyone’s mind. However, although adolescents understand what death means, they may not yet have the emotional maturity to accept what it entails.
If the child has never been confronted with a death in his entourage, it is difficult for him to accept that death is inevitable. Children who have had this type of experience have a more realistic and concrete conception of death.
Movies, stories or video games can be a source to broach the subject. However, they often convey a magical or unrealistic vision: characters come back to life after falling off a cliff, being shot multiple times, or having their heads cut in half.
When children are very young, their cognitive abilities do not allow them to distinguish whether what is shown on the screen is fantastic or unreal. If they ask, you have to try to explain it to them.
Understanding death: the role of cultural factors
The understanding of death depends on the culture in which the child is socialized. In the West, death is considered part of life and saying goodbye to a loved one means saying “goodbye” forever. In Eastern culture, death is seen as a continuation of life, with the belief that the soul continues to live after the death of the body.
Mexican culture is a good example of the influence of culture on the understanding of death. On All Souls’ Day , Mexicans pay respect to their loved ones, celebrate life and death, and remember those who died with affection and joy. Mexican families tell their children stories about their ancestors and talk openly about death with them. This presence of death from an early age reduces the fear of death and allows children to naturally apprehend this moment of life.
In children with religious beliefs, the idea that death is irreversible and the supernatural belief that the soul lives in the afterlife coexist.
Religious beliefs provide reassurance and meaning to death, with rituals helping to overcome the loss of a loved one. A review of studies concluded that people with strong religious beliefs or, conversely, non-believers have less fear of death. However, if children learn that they can be judged or punished after death, they may fear the end of life.
How to help children understand death
Talking about death with children is difficult for adults because it involves facing their own fears. We worry about whether our children will be frightened or what impact it will have on them. However, honest conversations are necessary.
Explaining that death is irreversible requires age-appropriate language. We can explain to younger people that when we die, our body stops working and will never work again. Older children are better able to understand the biological process of death. Past experiences with animals or plants help children understand the cycle of life.
Children’s films can also be used. For example, scenes such as that of The Lion King , where, observing the savannah, Simba learns that all living beings are linked and that when a creature dies it nourishes the earth and new life is born, making death a part of the cycle of life. Or films like Coco , which takes place on the Day of the Dead, conveying the idea that loved ones will never disappear as long as we remember them.
While it is good to be honest and to confirm to the child that all human beings die, certain ideas can alleviate their distress. We can make him understand that most people die when they are very old or very sick.
It is important to encourage the child to express his fears and emotions , showing him that it is normal to be very sad or to be afraid of dying one day. When told that these are normal feelings that everyone has, it is easier for them to voice their concerns.
Showing them our support and willingness to talk helps them through this complex process of coming to terms with death.
Finally, we must encourage them to enjoy life, to appreciate the present moment and to remember those who are no longer there so that they continue to be part of us.
Author Bios: Mireia Orgiles works at Catedrática de Universidad, Expert in Tratamiento Psicológico Infantil and Jose Pedro Espada also works at Catedrático de Psicología both at Universidad Miguel Hernandez