CHILDREN AND DEATH - CASA of Brown County
CHILDREN AND DEATH - CASA of Brown County
Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.
And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it's much too small, because she won't
curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don't die.
Illene Noppe Cupit, PhD
Professor of Human Development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
President-Elect of the Association for Death Education and Counseling
Presentation to the CASA Volunteer Training Workshop
November 15, 2011
E-Mail: [email protected]
Early childhood experiences with death.
Two conceptual umbrellas.
What goes into a mature concept of death?
Children and dying.
Children and grief.
Briefly write down your earliest significant
childhood death experience:
How old were you?
Who or what died?
What did you feel?
How were you treated?
What else can you remember about the event?
Dickinson, G. E. (1992). First childhood death
experiences. Omega, 25, 169-182.
Content analysis of 440 college students from
1979 – 1991. (Mean age = 23.79 years)
Average age of first death experience = 7.95
years. Results: Most frequent death was of a
relative-57%, but 28% were of a pet.
Responses: Confusion and fear most common.
Explanations: went to heaven; lots of
Lots of essays mentioned crying; playing funeral,
the fun of family reunion.
Young children do not think about death.
Children become horribly anxious when
death is discussed.
Children’s death concepts parallel those of
Children should not go to a funeral.
Early parental death creates long-lasting
All children arrive at an understanding of
death at about the same age.
Children rarely grieve, and when they do,
it doesn’t last a long time: An active
playing child is not a grieving child.
Adults should have all the answers,
especially if they are teachers or clergy.
Two conceptual models that frequently are
used to explain the development of death
◦ Erikson’s psychosocial model. Evolved into a
developmental task approach.
◦ Piaget’s stage approach.
Nagy (1948) “Auntie Death”:
Studied 348 children, 3 - 10 yrs. from Budapest,
Found three developmental stages.
Death is a state of restricted functioning.
The dead can come back to life.
Fear of separation.
Death is punishment.
◦ Death is personified.
◦ Death is punishment.
◦ Death comes to all, but can be outsmarted
"I'm quarter gone...I'm half gone...I'm threequarters gone...I'm all gone!"
Stage 3: A mature concept…
What is a mature concept? Shared by adults in
◦ all inclusiveness, inevitability, unpredictability
◦ (magical thinking gives way torealistic thinking).
Noncorporeal continuation (nonempirical beliefs)
Primary research is artwork.
DeSpelder & Stricklund (1978) asked: “How
do people die?”
What do children report?…..
A sick person dying at home in their sleep.
Dying from cancer.
Dying from an explosion from lighting a gas stove
Dying from a snake or spider’s bite.
Dying in a hospital from surgery or procedure.
International & cross-national study of young
children’s (elementary school) perceptions of death
South Central L.A.
Santa Cruz, CA
Asked to draw a picture that was blind reviewed by
certified art therapist.
home & in
Barrett & DeSpelder (1997)
◦ Used artwork to study death attitudes in children
◦ Children’s understandings and perceptions of death
A word of advice:
◦ Don’t confuse age with stages!
◦ Avoid oversimplifying our view of children.
Needs can mesh with Eriksonian stages.
What are the needs of dying children?
Sense of belonging
Opportunities for expression
Confirmation as a person of value
Assurance that they will not be forgotten.
Grief tied to developmental level.
Childhood grief is unique to the child’s capacities.
Grief tied to family system.
Children who are grieving may show:
Acting out and other behaviors that may mimic ADHD
Grief responses only when they feel safe to do so.
Fear of abandonment.
Social withdrawal, anxiety
Support system should encourage children to accomplish their
developmental tasks. Resilient children experience positive parenting as
they cope with their loss.
125 children, ages 6 – 17 interviewed over a
two year period who experienced the death of
Researchers found that children maintained
relationships with their dead parents rather
than letting go.
Behaviors, memories and feelings brought
them closer to their deceased parents.
Strategies of connection:
◦ Locating the deceased: Most children say “heaven.”
14-year-old Catholic boy whose father died:
“I want my father to see me perform. If I said a dead
person can’t see then I would not be able to have my
wish that he see what I am doing. I believe that the dead
see, hear, move. Don’t ask me how. I just believe it.
Heaven is a mysterious place. My father is with all the
other relatives that died.”
◦ Experiencing the deceased: Dead parents were
watching their children:
“I sometimes think he is watching me. It scares me
because sometimes he might see me do something he
wouldn’t like. Like, it’s weird…it’s not scary…like if
you’re doing something, like if someone’s watching you,
you don’t do it, if it’s bad. You don’t do it if someone’s
“I dreamed he met me on the way home from school and
that he hugged me. When I woke up I felt so sad that I
won’t have that anymore.”
◦ Reaching out to the deceased (e.g., visit the
cemetery, speaking to the deceased):
“In my mind, I talk to him. I tell him what I did today,
about the fish I caught and that I did real good.”
◦ Waking Memories and Thoughts:
Most children remembered fairly literal and concrete
things about their dead parents.
“I think about the stupid things we did together.”
Many children think of their current relationship with the
“I keep my room nice and tidy now, that’s the way he had
everything. Before I would just throw stuff down. Now
every morning I pick everything up. I know it would
Approx. 1.8 million children
from birth to 18 years old
are sibling bereaved in the
U.S. at an given time.
The death of a sibling freezes the relationship
as it existed at that moment.
◦ Wish they had been nicer or spent more time with
◦ Some are left as only children.—”My parents have
each other, but I have only me.”
◦ Sibs feel that their family and lives are forever
altered—grieve for this lost family as well.
◦ May have difficulty accepting the idea that the
death could not have been prevented.
◦ Check out http://www.supersibs.org/
◦ Headaches, stomachaches, jumpiness, clingy and fearful
when parents are not present.
◦ Sleep difficulties—may be night terrors if sib died violently.
◦ Attention deficits and difficulty concentrating—may affect
◦ May feel socially alienated—nobody understands them.
◦ Avoid becoming close to others because bad things will
happen to them.
◦ Feel guilty about being alive when their sibling is dead.
◦ May feel they are dishonoring their deceased sib if they
◦ Experience regrief—anniversaries, dev milestones, hear
favorite song of sib, if media reports about the death.
1. The issues: Development of death concepts,
experiential factors in death awareness, the
bereavement of children, dying children.
2. Ways they are unlike adults: Concepts and
grieving are not similar, do not have a road map in
order to predict what happens next, little input.
3. Similar: Curious about death, desire honesty,
need social support.
Be honest. It is okay to say you don’t know the
Take advantage of “teachable moments.”
Avoid euphemisms. Use precise terms.
Explain at child’s level of understanding.
Allow and accept children’s feelings—it is
natural to cry. However, the manner in which
feelings are expressed will often correspond to
family and cultural norms.
Express your feelings.
Reassure child that someone will be there for
him or her.
Caregivers who work together in supporting the
child experiencing loss and grief will be most
In most cases, how well children deal with loss
and grief will be influenced by the way that the
adult or significant others in children’s lives are
dealing with the loss and their grief.
Children cannot tolerate long periods of sadness.
This doesn’t mean that they didn’t love the person
who died or are being disrespectful. (they can even
Look for changes in child’s behavior or patterns
that might be signs that there are problems.
Respect the child’s own coping style and timetable.
Recognize magical thinking and try to dispel
notions that the child caused the death.
Have faith in the resiliency of the child.
Resources in Our Community
Center for Grieving Children
Association for Death Education and Counseling
Sesame Street Workshop on Grief
Open to Hope Foundation