A few months ago, I was leading my grade school youth group on a tour of a park outside of Austin when we happened upon a dead bird. It was lying right in the middle of the path we were walking, and my group of twelve kids was fascinated. They crowded around the lifeless cadaver and examined it closely before I could pull them away, and when we sat down for lunch at a picnic bench in the park, the dead bird was all that they could talk about.
All of those kids were between the ages of five and eight, and yet most of them had no idea why an animal (or human) dies. It struck me that their parents and their teachers had avoided this difficult subject, and that they really had had no formal education about our final rite of passage. In church, they had heard about the crucifixion of Jesus, and about the deaths of congregation members, but they didn’t understand what the word really meant.
When I got home that evening, I started doing research on the subject of death, and how it is taught to children. I learned that death education is referred to as thanatology, and that it is almost a social stigma that we have placed on our school systems and in our homes. Parents don’t broach the subject until a family member passes on, and schools never bother to bring it up in class. I was shocked that we have no problem with sex education, but that we can’t talk to our kids about death and tragedy.
My research showed that the schedule of the understanding of death is similar for children to any cognitive development. Under two years of age, they have little or no understanding, but can still sense that something is wrong, and will of course be saddened by the absense of the deceased. From the ages of two until four, they begin to understand what death means, but have trouble grasping the finality of it, which means that they don’t understand that death is permanent. From four up until nine or ten, they begin to become inquisitive about the subject, and fascinated with the entire idea of death. And after ten, they have come to grips with the subject, and are fully aware of the permanence of death.
This schedule of understanding brings to light many questions for parents: when should I talk to my kids about death? and how much information is too much information?
As I said in the beginning, the earlier the better. Children start school between the ages of five and six, and the classroom is where they learn most of their information. Though their teachers will probably not broach the subject at all, their classmates will have had different levels of life experience, and you never know what kind of information your child will receive. By informing them of the facts before they are confronted by their peers, you bypass the element of confusion and teach exactly what you would like your child to know.
In my opinion, you should discuss death with your child by the time that they are four, though there is no reason to get graphic or complicated in your discussion. Simply explain that death is a part of life, and that everything that breaths will one day pass on. If you are religious, or if you want to instill a particular religion in your child, this is a great way to integrate faith with death. Describe the afterlife in which you believe, and explain why that is so according to religious text or dogmas.
If you are not religious, however, it is not essential that you include this component. Though the afterlife remains somewhat of a question mark, even for devoutly religious people, death itself is scientifically quantitative. Explain to your child that even though the deceased are no longer with us on earth, their memory still resides in our hearts, and that we can keep them alive in our daily lives with pictures and mementos and images in our minds.
If a death occurs before you are able to explain it to your child, then you will have to deal with grief and loss as well as the logistics of death. Often, a child’s first experience with death happens when a family pet dies, and there is no way for you to forsee such an incident. Explain that animals die just as well as people, and that you will always remember Fluffy even though she is gone.
Death might be a difficult subject to handle with your child, but you will be relieved that you had the discussion when it’s over. You’ll feel better about your child’s knowledge on the subject, and about their emotional health as they deal with death in the future. There is no way to shield your child from this unfortunate fact of life, but you can be there to help them deal with it when the time comes.