Ask EP: Dealing With Death

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Q:  I went to a funeral yesterday and the parents of the very young (2/3yrolds) were encouraging their children to “Say goodbye to Grandma” Kisses, picture taking etc. were happening. The little 2.5 yr old girl cried hysterically as she watched them close the casket and carry Grandma out to the hearse. I was busy trying to comfort my 15yo daughter who didn’t want to see her great grandma but people were telling her they wanted her picture with Grandma. I am so disturbed that people were so upset with my daughter and trying to pressure her into doing something she didn’t want to do. How do I help my daughter deal with all that she saw? She is still so upset.

-          Christy from California

Note that due to the time-sensitive nature of this, a response was provided ahead of time with respect to the second part of the question, but this elaborates upon that response and offers information on the first part.

A:  There are two questions here that would elicit qualitatively different answers so we’ll tackle each in turn.  First is the question of whether or not it’s appropriate for young children to be asked to do things like “say goodbye”, kisses, pictures, etc.  I will first start by saying that when talking about grief, there is very little systematic research (how can there be?) so much of what we know comes from clinical work and clinicians observations in helping individuals cope with death.  However, there is a plethora of research on children’s understanding of death, and this seems quite important when discussing how we should respond to young children in the face of death.

When do children understand death?  In a review of the literature on the topic, it was found that the median age of acquisition was 7 years of age (so be weary of the fact that not all children at 7 will have attained this).  At this stage, the majority of children understand the concepts of irreversibility (i.e., that death cannot be undone), nonfunctionality (i.e., that the dead person cannot act as a living one), and universality (i.e., that everyone and everything that is alive, dies).  Right off the bat, this suggests that asking children to engage in rituals surrounding death is going to tax their level of understanding and potentially cause significant distress.  This same review examined the various ways in which children view death prior to this age of acquisition.

1)      Irreversibility.  Children seem to view being dead as similar to being sick – someone can go to a doctor or receive some form of intervention and it will bring them back to life.  And it isn’t just that they say doctors can fix them, they blatantly state that a dead person can come back to life.  Thinking of the 2 ½ year old at the funeral, if she believes her grandmother can come back to life, the images of someone closing a casket and taking her away would be absolutely terrifying.  This is why some clinicians suggest that funerals are not appropriate for children who haven’t grasped a full understanding of death.

2)      Nonfunctionality.  Prior to fully understanding this, children believe that dead people continue to feel, breathe, and engage in a number of “functional” activities that are limited to those who are alive.  Their understanding is mixed in that many young children are able to identify at least some functions that dead people cannot engage in; however, the development of this understanding seems to follow a predictable path.  Children understand the cessation of biological functions (e.g., heart beating, breathing) before the cessation of emotional and cognitive functions (e.g., feelings and thoughts).  This may be why funerals can be so difficult for young children – putting someone you love in a box, or in the ground, and shutting them in should hurt and they don’t want to witness someone they love experiencing that.

3)      Universality.  Even when children start to grasp the idea of death, many of them believe that there are ways to avoid it or that certain people won’t die.  Most children also believe that one of these groups is children’s immediate family, and for obvious reasons.  To think of people we love dying is difficult to grasp as adults, much less when someone is a child who depends upon these people for their well-being.  Another seemingly universal stage is that children understand others will die before understanding that they themselves will die.  While this facet of understanding seems less relevant for children attending funerals, the death of a loved one may push the boundaries of what a child understands and can result in significant anxiety and cognitive dissonance for the child.  Parents must be very aware of this in how they address death with their child and help them make sense of something that flies in the face of everything they believe.

All of this suggests that young children need to be treated very gently when it comes to dealing with death and parents need to be aware of the cognitive limitations of their child.  I realize that many parents want to be fully open with their children, and that’s commendable and no one is saying you have to lie, but talking to children about something far outside of their understanding won’t benefit them and runs the risk of simply causing more anxiety than is necessary.  There are many books out there on how to help children cope with grief and I would suggest finding one that fits your perspective on death if you require any help with younger ones (you can also check out the Karns handout listed below under sources).

The second question is how to help an older child handle a rather traumatic experience at the funeral.  The first this is that you want to allow your child to express any and all emotions surrounding the incident.  If you start trying to justify what others were doing, it may sound to her like you’re taking their side.  Let her rant, scream, be angry, etc. and when that stage has passed, you can start to rationally try to talk to her about what occurred.  By this age, children do understand that death is final, but a newer complication arises in that this is typically the age they’re faced with it with respect to a family member or someone they are close to.  The universality of death is one of the hardest aspects to overcome and think of logically and typically kids may grow to understand at an intellectual level that death occurs to everyone, but emotionally that understanding isn’t there until faced with it.  (I constantly struggle with the idea that one day my daughter will die – hopefully long after I’m gone – it’s just too devastating to think about and causes me extreme anxiety.)  At 15 years of age, it wouldn’t be unheard of for your daughter to use this experience in terms of thinking about all the people she loves and their mortality.  One of the things you may want to discuss with her is how she feels about other individuals dying to discover if this may be part of her trauma (or part of why she did not want to see the body).  In short, though, the important thing is to allow to express her emotions, offer unconditional support for them, and then when she’s ready, start to process logically and rationally the experiences she faced.

 

Sources:

Furman E.  Helping children cope with death.  Young Children 1978; 33: 25-32.

Karns JT.  Children’s understanding of death.  Journal of Clinical Activities, Assignments & Handouts in Psychotherapy Practice 2002; 2: 43-50.

Speece MW, Brent SB.  Children’s understanding of death: a review of three components of a death concept.  Child Development 1984; 55: 1671-1686.

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  1. Jespren says

    I think children not understanding death is a recent thing, because children in times past (and certainly in some places still today) will be well aware of it’s reality well before 7! But then, most 2 year olds once realized the chicken came from a chicken. I think seeing animal death (in the form of food most commonly) readies children for the concept of human death. From a personal perspective I don’t rememeber not understanding death. My 1st exposure to close-family death was at 4, and I knew what was going on. But we raised both chickens and rabbits for eggs and food and had a familt dog die too.
    I think parents do their kids a *grave* diservice hiding the death of pets. Buying goldfish at night and replacing, saying dogs had to go live elsewhese, etc, just takes away the natural progression of learning and understanding that life provides to ease kids into human death.

    I agree, however, that a 2 1/2 year old is too young for multiple reasons to be asked to attend or participate in a funeral, especially the type that are common today.

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