Children’s Understandings of Death

An Interview with Dr. Kate Adams

Death is a part of life. Even if some children do not experience it directly with a pet or family member, they know other kids whose lives are affected. They also see and hear about deaths in their communities and in other parts of the world. They may even live in places where fear of death is an everyday occurance. Dr. Kate Adams is studying how children think about death and what happens after death. She suggests that adults might be surprised by how much kids understand about this often taboo topic.


Interview with Dr. Kate Adams

Welcome. I’m Karen-Marie Yust, and my colleague, Erin Reibel, and I are talking with Dr. Kate Adams, who is a Professor of Education at Leeds Trinity University in the UK. Dr. Adams is currently exploring children’s ideas of death and beyond. We’re so glad you’re able to be with us today.

Thank you.

Thank you for joining us. Now, a lot of adults are uncomfortable talking about death with anyone, and especially with children. Why should we talk about death with kids?

Well, as you say, a lot of us in many cultures are worried about that, but the key issue is that death is all around us. So children see it day in, day out. It might be in the news, it might be in video games, films, social media. And for many children, it’s literally on their streets with perhaps gang violence and so on. So it’s inescapable for children and trying to protect them, which is what I think adults try to do with the best intentions, it just isn’t possible, particularly with the intense graphicness of the images these days. But children will therefore ask questions. And some of those questions are related to the big philosophical questions in life: Why do people die? What happens when we die? Why do good people suffer? Why are there wars? And children want those answers.

And we know statistically that children, when they’re of school age, are very likely to become bereaved. It may be the death of a pet, and the importance of that, I think can often be underestimated by adults. Could be the death of a person as well. So that makes the topic particularly relevant for teachers as well, because it’s going to come up at some point. So the more, I think, that we talk about death in an open and honest way with children, then when they are bereaved, it’s going to help. It won’t solve everything, but it will at least normalize conversations. But of course, there are some cultures who don’t have this sort of closed, nervous attitude, and I think it’s really helpful to draw on those. So cultures, for example, where death is accepted and it’s considered a celebration of life. So I think bringing up children in that kind of atmosphere of openness and the spirit of inquiry will help them when they do actually have to face the realities of being bereaved.

I appreciate the way that you want to really normalize death as a part of the life experience, even for children. What are some of the ideas that children have about death?

Well, psychologists have done quite a lot of studies, and they found that generally children have a good understanding of the biological elements of death. So psychologists categorize, for example, them as an understanding of universality in that everything that is living will die. Children come to understand quite quickly the irreversibility of physical death. So when a body has died, it’s generally not going to come back to life. Obviously, near death experiences are a slight anomaly, but they’re very, very small in number. Thirdly, children realize that the body no longer functions. So once it’s dead, it can’t do what it used to do. It can’t walk, eat, talk, think anymore. And children also understand causality that something has caused the death, whether it’s something external or an internal medical condition.

But we also know that children have misconceptions, particularly younger children, and some of those are caused by the metaphors that adults use. Now, again, done usually with the best intentions, but phrases like, “oh, grandpa has gone to sleep” or, “grandma has passed away.” And that language can create misconceptions with children. So, for example, some children become very fearful of either going to sleep themselves in case they don’t wake up, or they become very fearful that if their parents go to sleep, they might not wake up. And I think from the spiritual perspective, one of the more interesting areas of understanding that children have is what psychologists call non-corporeal continuation, which basically means that some children will believe that there’s some part of the person that continues to exist after the body has died. Some cultures will call that soul, some spirit, some will call it a ghost, for example.

So here, of course, we’re talking about children believing that there is an afterlife. And some children of course, believe in past lives as well. They might believe that they have lived before, or that others have lived before, they’ve then had this life on earth, and then they go on to reincarnate again in another form. And I think the interesting thing with those kind of beliefs is that it is not necessarily directly related to a faith tradition that a child might’ve been brought up in. So we mustn’t assume that they will believe something they have been taught. And many children with no faith backgrounds at all believe in things like afterlife and reincarnation.

And on top of that, some children report actually experiencing deceased people. We often hear stories of young children, particularly just casually saying to their parents that they’ve been in the other room talking to their grandma who has been deceased. And some report visitations from people who’ve died in their dreams. So we have a lovely, really rich, interesting realm that makes it even more interesting to talk to children about death, as well as the functional reasons for doing so that I mentioned before.

So keeping all of this in mind, how can teachers facilitate conversations about death with kids?

Well, teachers are, of course, in a very difficult position – I was one myself many years ago – because they’re not trained, and that means they can be very worried about unintentionally making bereavement worse for a child. For example, they’re worried about saying anything that might contradict what the children’s families have said, and the teacher wouldn’t necessarily know, of course, what all the families have said. So I think before teachers actually start to talk with children, it’s worth them really reflecting privately, or with other teachers, on their own beliefs and their own experiences. Not to share with children, but just so that they’re more centered.

Now, school curriculums, of course, differ across the world, but actually a good way that teachers actually do this anyway is, for example, through science, where they’re teaching about the lifecycle: lifecycle of animals, of plants. And that’s a good way in. And history lessons, where they might teach about historical wars or they might teach about ancient civilizations and the gods and goddesses and the religious beliefs around death and afterlife there as well. And of course, some schools in some countries teach about religious education, where they can explicitly teach about these things. And children’s literature, children’s storybooks, are a really great way in when people, teachers, want to actually talk about these issues. Reading a story, and particularly picture books that have some beautiful illustrations, that can help children with their imaginations, thinking. They can do follow-up, work around poetry, discussion, creative writing. And I think framed around, again, as we said, those other cultural views of death as a celebration of life is a really nice way to take forward.

But bereavement charities will always say to teachers and other adults to use straightforward language. Don’t be afraid of talking about the language of death and dying, and being very careful to avoid those metaphors like passed away, or gone to sleep, or is now a star up in the sky. Because that can unintentionally lead to confusion for children. And I think where teachers, because teachers will be faced with children asking questions spontaneously, and that can take teachers aback if it’s not actually related to the subject they’re teaching at the time. So often it’s worth just responding back to children with a question so, “Well, what do you think?” And remaining neutral as well. So another way is to say, “Well, some people believe this, some people believe that. What do you believe?” But I think any opportunity to do so is really good to normalize those conversations, and that in the long run can only help children cope when they are faced with bereavement.

Thank you, Kate. I think one of my takeaways is how important it is to really listen to and support children as they think about what death and beyond might mean to them, and not focus so much on having to convey a particular idea. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and your research in this area, and hope that you’ll continue to share with us insights that you have in the future.

Absolutely. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you both.

Thank you, Kate.




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