Camp Monarch

What Do Children Really Understand About Death?

Very often, I hear parents, family members, and the community say things like, “He does not understand what is going on”, “She is too little to understand what is happening”, “He is fine, look at him, he is laughing and playing”, and many other comments just like that.

So, the question is, do children really understand death? If so, what do they think about it?

At very early ages, children do not understand the differences between death, separation, and even sleeping. To a very young child, some one who is sleeping may seem die to them. Think about it, when someone dies, adults may explain to a child that, “Grandpa is just sleeping or resting” after Grandpa has died.

As a child grows, their understanding of death changes. A child will go from believing a death to be the same as sleeping to believing you can cause death by a wish and reverse death with good behavior.

There are different stages of understanding a child will go through before they reach a mature understanding of death. A child’s intellectual capabilities, emotional composition, personal experience with death, cultural and religious backgrounds, and learning environment will all impact the rate at which their understanding of death develops and grows.

Babies and children under 3 years old are unaware of the differences between death, separation, and sleeping. The youngest children may have a very immature understanding of death, but they can feel the impact of a death. For example, if their routine changes due to a death in the family, then these young children may very well response to that change through their behaviors and eating patterns.  

Around age 3-6 years old, the child begins to understand that when someone is dead, their body function is gone. Such as a dead bird, will not fly anymore. These children do not understand death to be permanent, or that everyone will die at some time, and do not understand why people die. They may view death as a punishment. A punishment, because they were bad or a wish they made.

Around the age of 6-12 years old, children become very interested in what happens to the body after someone dies. They view death very scientifically. This age group recognizes that everyone will die at some point, but may not understand what causes someone to die. They may have fears of going to sleep, because Grandpa died in his sleep.

As the child continues to grow into adulthood, their cultural and religious backgrounds will add to their understanding of death. Around 12 years old, a child will have a pretty good understanding of death and what causes someone to die.

So, to answer my questions above…yes, children do understand death, but understand death to be different things at different times in their development. Still, children know more than we think and should be able to express their feelings at all ages when their lives have been impacted by death.

What do you think? What has been your experience with children and death? Do you allow them to be apart of the dying process of a loved one? Do you include them at funerals?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

For more information please visit our website, www.covenanthospice.org. Other helpful websites are www.candlelighters.org, www.centering,org, www.campassionatefriends.org, www.grievingchild.org, www.hospicefoundation.org, www.nhpco.org, and www.ippcweb.org.

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