Week 6 - Death and Children
Chapter 6 - Death and the Child
First Childhood Experiences of Death
• College students recalled their first experiencesof death vividly, saying they felt anxiety,
confusion, anger, happiness, relief. I this, little difference between children and adults is
• Differences are noted in how adults dealt with the child. Example: given confusing
explanations, false impressions.
Children's Conceptions of Death
• Maria Nagy's Research
○ One of the earliest and best-known studies of children's conceptionsof death. In
Hungary during WWII.
○ Asked children 3-10 years "what is death?"
○ Concluded that children pass through 3 stages of understanding
1. STAGE 1 3-5 yrs:
□ Curious about death, regard it as much like life but in a diminished form
2. STAGE 2 5-9:
□ Recognize finality of death
□ Personifyit (e.g. Grim Reaper)
□ Idea that death comesto everyonenot fully fixed yet
3. STAGE 3 9+ yrs:
□ Understand death as adults do, an event that will happen to everyone
• Speece and Brent's Research
○ Refined understanding of how children conceive of death.
○ Reviewedrelevant literature to analyze major componentsof the concept of death.
○ Understanding of somecomponentsmay proceed independently of understanding of
○ Speece and Brent's 5 componentsof death:
1. Irreversibility.Once death has occurred, it cannot be reversed.
2. Nonfunctionality. When death occurs, all life sustaining functions cease.
3. Universality. Death comesto every living thing.
4. Causality. What causes death? Why do living things die?
5. Personal mortality. An understanding that the individual himself or herself will die.
• Other Research
○ Infancy (Birth-3yrs old)
Limited cognitive skills, but still has emotionalreactions to the death of a familiar
Infants show outrage, confusion, despair and depression when caregivers
Recognize that a familiar person is gone, this causes them pain.
Difficult to be sure what they understand.
○ Early Childhood (3-5 yrs)
Children have some conception of death, although limited and inaccurate.
Children do not understand componentsof Speece and Brent's research until
about 5 yrs. Before this, they show magical thinking, that somehowdeath will be
Do not see death as final or irreversible
Believe people can come back to life
Can be very disturbed by the closing of a casket
Believe death does not cometo everyone
○ Middle Childhood (5-10 yrs)
Have a clearer understanding of the irreversibility of death, although their
understanding is not yet completeuntil 9-10 yrs.
Universality develops first, then irreversibility then nonfunctionality, with causality Universality develops first, then irreversibility then nonfunctionality, with causality
following later, independently.
Comprehend the death of humans before they comprehend death of animals.
Death is often drawn as a person, even older children personified death. Boy's
drawings more violent than girls.
○ Adolescence (10-16yrs)
Majorityof children have acquired an understanding of the individual components
Increase in mysticalunderstanding of death vs biological (e.g. drawing death as a
Factors Affecting the Development of the Concept of Death
• Brenda Kenyon (2001) examined factors thought to have an impact on children's acquisition of
the various componentsof death.
○ Cognitive ability. Assumed that understanding of death increases with cognitive ability.
Some indication exists that verbal ability enhances the organization of understanding of
death and communicationof understanding. Note: interview studies might be leaving
out children with lower verbal abilities.
○ Gender and socioeconomic status. Neither gender nor socioeconomicstatus has much
effect on the acquisition of the concept of death.
○ Cultural/religious effects. Cross-culturally, children are similar, howeverthere are some
Children exposed to death stimuli understand irreversibility and nonfunctionality
sooner than other children.
Children raised with belief in an afterlife are later understanding in irreversibility
than children raised without.
○ Experience. Children exposed to family deaths hastens their understanding of the
concept of death.
○ Social-emotional factors. Highly anxious children have more trouble understanding the
componentof universality than less anxious children.
How do Children Show their Grief?
• William Worden's (1996)Research
○ Interviewed children after death of a parent
○ Predominantreactions were guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety.
○ Anxiety rose over the first year of bereavement,expressed more by girls. Increased
anxiety from children who's daily life had been disrupted.
○ Crying found less in adolescent boys.
○ Anger moreevident in bereaved children one year after than nonbereavedchildren.
○ Children (especially girls) showed more signs of physical illness (e.g. tummy aches)
○ Psychologically,bereaved children felt less in control of the circumstances of their lives
• Other Research
○ John Bowlby (1960)described infant's reactions in three steps:
1. Child protests separation, showing both anger and pain.
2. When attachment figure still does not return, child shows despair as s/he gives up
3. Child detaches itself from people in general, developing possible permanent
inability to bond with others.
○ Hames (2003) noted that infants who experience long-term loss of a primary caregiver
have been found to cry more and show sleep, eating and elimination disturbances.
Bereaved toddlers show regressive behaviours, using baby talk and losing toilet