28 July 2013


Last year my son's mother-in-law passed away, after a long illness.  Her death was a terrible loss to my son's wife.  The loss was almost inconceivable to my grandson, who was ten at the time, and had been very close to his grandmother.

As luck would have it, the information-rich National Geographic website recently published a piece which is welcome to all of us who must try to help children understand death.  Virginia Hughes' When Do Kids Understand  Death? draws upon research from the 1930s to the present, and places the discussion in the framework of a child's intellectual and emotional development.  Her answers, for both children and adults, are illuminating.

"No matter what your age, death is not easily defined.  But for the purposes of research, scientists define a child's understanding of death by looking at three specific aspects of the concept.

"The first is death's irreversibility.  Once your body is dead, it cannot ever be alive again.  Kids under 3 don't understand this idea ~ they'll talk about dead people as if they went on a trip or took a nap, or will hold open the possibility that dead things can come back to life with the help of water, food, medicine, or magic.  Children begin to grasp death's finality around age 4.  In one typical study, researchers found that 10 percent of 3-year-olds understand irreversibility, compared with 58 percent of 4-year-olds.

"The other two aspects of death are learned a bit later, usually between age 5 and 7.  One, dubbed nonfunctionality, is the idea that a dead body can no longer do things that a living body can do.  Before this is grasped, kids will affirmatively answer questions like, Can a dead person feel? or If someone died, could he still eat?  Can he move?  Can he dream?

"Then there's death's most befuddling attribute, at least for me ~ its universality.  Every living thing dies, every plant, every animal, every person.  Each one of us will someday expire.  Interestingly, before children learn this, many believe that there are certain groups of people who are protected from death, like teachers, parents, and themselves.  'Without a doubt, most children understand that some people die before they understand that they themselves will die,' the review authors write.  And even children who understand that they will one day perish 'have a tendency to say that their death will occur only in the remote future when they get old'

"These are all generalities and tendencies.  Some kids develop more quickly than others.  And some studies have found that emotionally traumatic events ~ such as the loss of a parent ~ can speed up a child's understanding of death."

When I was about 6 or 7, my parents and I lived on a farm along the Rocky Mountain Front, in northern Montana.  One afternoon I was home alone, after the school bus dropped me off.  My mother had driven to a distant town earlier in the day, but should have been home to meet me.  My father was nowhere to be found.  I was puzzled and confused.  Then something surreal happened ~ a car containing two neighbor women pulled into the driveway.  They came inside, and told me that my mom had been in a car accident.  My dad was with her at the hospital, and I was to come with them to stay at our nearest neighbor's home until we knew more.

Not knowing what else to do, I obeyed.  I was friends with that neighbor's children, so playing with them provided distraction from the dark and worrisome cloud of uncertainty which took over my emotions and my thoughts in moments of silence.  The day passed into evening, and I'd been tucked into a bed on the sofa when my parents walked into the door, and I ran into their waiting arms.  I could breathe again.

I later learned that my mom had been driving home, when an oncoming car with a drunk driver at the wheel swerved and struck her car.  In those days before seat belts, it's a miracle that she came out of it with little more than a few cuts and a nasty bump on the head.  Thankfully our country roads back then were gravel, so neither vehicle was traveling very fast.  The other driver was cited by the sheriff, and after doctors determined that my mom had sustained no serious injuries, she was released from the hospital.

But I still remember those dark clouds in my mind, not knowing if my mother was alive or dead, or how badly hurt.  Not knowing is a terrible thing.  Only rarely is knowing worse.

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