A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Do Children Understand Death?

Here are some interesting insights from National Geographic on children and death. Reading the article reminded me of the time, many years ago, when we took our young daughters to calling hours for my great-uncle. Courtney (who was only three) asked me the entire night, "Why he die?" It was tough for me to answer and no doubt difficult for a little girl to comprehend. I highlight only a small portion of the article by Virginia Hughes. The entire post can be found here.
Wednesday morning I went to the funeral of my husband's grandfather, who had lived 93 years. As a couple of dozen family members circled around his grave site, I couldn't help but think of how bizarre and disorienting death is. Just a few days earlier, there was, there existed, a physically robust, smiling, warm, breathing man. And now his big body was somehow fixed in a wooden box, descending into a dirt hole just a few feet from his tearful widow, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild.

My niece Emily, who's almost 3, was on her mom's hip, snacking on Cheerios and watching the burial intently. "What are we doing?" she said. "Saying good-bye to Opa," her mom whispered. "Bye-bye, Opa!" Emily said cheerily. Her mom burst into tears. "What's wrong, Mommy?"

It was one of the morning's many bittersweet moments, a reminder that even amidst death, life goes on. I kept thinking about it throughout the day, as I saw Emily laughing and climbing and running around an apartment full of grievers. When does a child learn the concept of death? And how do scientists even figure that out?

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.

...'nonfunctionality', is the idea that a dead body can no longer do things that a living body can do.

Then there's death's most befuddling attribute, at least for me: its universality. Every living thing dies, every plant, every animal, every person.

This research helps explain my niece's reaction at the funeral. But it's strange to simplify death as if it were any other early cognitive concept, like object permanence or theory of mind. I've got 26 years on my niece and still haven't hit the developmental milestone of understanding death. I doubt I ever will.

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