When my daughter was 18 months and while vacationing in tropical San Juan, a mosquito tried to bite her. I clapped, hitting and knocking it to the floor. Looking concerned she announced to our relatives: “Mami broke the mosquito.” On one cloudy early Spring morning, and now a four year old scooting through a NYC park, she noticed a bird lying motionless on the ground. She asked: is that bird dead? then stopped on her tracks before continuing: “I don’t want to die….Are you going to die, Mami?” I barely gulped down a mouthful of coffee and heard myself reply: “Not now, not today, that’s a long time away”. Five years later, she woke up in the middle of the night-or maybe she was still asleep with opened eyes—, and with pressing urgency she demanded: “Mami, promise me that if we die, we die together!” I promised. The next morning, the World Trade Center towers burned.
Many parents and caregivers are faced unexpectedly with children’s questions about death. Others are forced to think about how to discuss death as relatives get older, sick, or when faced with random local, national, or international tragedies. But we do not always anticipate these conversations as childhood is supposed to be fun, light, full of future expectations and experiences to enjoy. And even when we do, often we struggle to find a calm, reassuring yet honest way to answer them. What do the children know anyway? We think them too young to understand and therefore we avoid this topic in order to spare them worries, as well as our own discomfort. But they are watching and learning, listening and noticing the unspoken. So perhaps we should prepare and think of ways to answer their questions. I think it helps to ask ourselves what we wished adults had shared with us before we experience our first loss to death. This could better guide our answers.
Children’s understanding of the concept of death parallels their mental development. Their reaction depends on what they think causes it. As they mature their ability to logically understand how and why people die increases. Up until 24 months, they experience intense, subjective images. They do not understand that an object exists apart from their perception of seeing, hearing, touching, or tasting it. When a parent is missing, they may become distressed at their absence. The average three to five year-old may think that dead people are not really dead, but continue to live under changed circumstances. Death is temporary, reversible, and caused magically. Think Wile E. Coyote bouncing back to life after a boulder hits him and not the Road Runner. ::::Beep, beep::: Personal motives are ascribed to events. And they may believe that ‘bad’ thoughts or deeds can also bring death.
From ages six to eight, death may be thought of as an entity or person that can be fought and mastered with ‘strong enough will’. “It” does not take young and healthy people, only those too weak to hold death off. The dead can still breathe, see, hear, feel, and eat. Children are fascinated by what happens to a corpse after death and may be preoccupied with its decomposition and decay. This causes many fears about the fate of the body. Between nine to 12 years of age, magical thinking is replaced with higher order logic. Children know that what lives also dies. Death is understood as normal and irreversible. They understand internal illness, physical violence, and accidents as its cause. Anxieties about the physical consequences of death may pop up then, yet the child may be soothed by a belief in life after death. But visualizing a decaying body underground and “in heaven” at the same time may be difficult. The concept of a soul or ‘spirit’ may be too abstract for the average 11 year-old to understand. For teenagers, death is final and irreversible. It happens to everyone, them included. This is when they may develop an interest in theological beliefs or explanations of life after death. Death is remote and spiritual rather than concrete and physical. It is inevitable, but will not happen immediately.
So what can you say when faced with having to discuss death with your children? Prepare a short version of an explanation you feel comfortable offering as a general answer, or a few phrases that can buy you time for a comprehensive one. Check out children’s books on death and dying for different age groups for simple ways of talking about this. Identify clarifications that match your cultural, scientific, or spiritual beliefs. Tailor them to what you know about your child and what you want to teach them. Not spiritual? Then review cycle of life and nature metaphors from everyday life to inform your preferred explanations: the beginning, middle, and end of all living things. Remember that you may have to retell the explanations at a later time, as they grow, their questions change and you get better at the answers.
My daughter has since said final good-byes to pets, grandparents, and one of her college best friends. Media frequently remind her of the ‘day childhood ended’– as she often calls September 11, 2001. We look at each other knowing that our turn will come. But for now, we just laugh at ‘breaking mosquitos.’