Virginia Hughes looks at the way children process the concept of death, and the prevailing research on their timetables for comprehension. She focuses on the three key aspects of death that children grasp at different ages, two of which stood out to me from my own experiences both as a parent, and from when I was a child.
I’m going to take them out of the order in which Hughes presents them, and begin with the last and most advanced of the concepts, death’s universality:
Every living thing dies, every plant, every animal, every person. Each one of us will someday expire. Interestingly, before children learn this, many believe that there are certain groups of people who are protected from death, like teachers, parents, and themselves. “Without a doubt, most children understand that some people die before they understand that they themselves will die,” the review authors write. And even children who understand that they will one day perish “have a tendency to say that their death will occur only in the remote future when they get old.”
I remember when this idea landed with me for the first time, and I was very young, but I don’t know what age exactly. Nor do I recall the context or the topic of conversation that led to the revelation, but I can picture the living room of the apartment we lived in, the armchair I was standing in front of, playing with some toy or other. At some point in talking to my parents, for whatever reason, I was told that everyone dies eventually, and I asked whether I would too, and the answer was in the affirmative.
I bawled. I was terrified. This Ultimate Finality of All Being was real, and it was coming, and there was nothing to be done about it. We were not religious, and if I did have any conceptions of heaven or an afterlife, they did not enter my young mind. I cried, grieving for my own death well in advance.
But this lasted only a few seconds, and one of my parents quickly added the proviso that it would be a very, very long time before it happened. I recall the words “when you’re an old man” and I think even they even estimated the passage of at least seventy years before this would come to pass. Now, at this stage of childhood, days and weeks seem like eternities (remember waiting for the next Christmas, the next birthday…interminable!). So, as I recall, this was enough to allay my anxiety. “Seventy years” may as well have been a million years to my mind, and, I think also due to a wish to not have to worry about such a horrific eventuality, I allowed this to calm me almost entirely. I went back to playing. I may have even said, “Oh! Okay!”
But I have now a much clearer memory of a child getting his first inkling of not-being, my own son’s. Here’s Hughes describing the first aspect, death’s irreversibilty:
Once your body is dead, it cannot ever be alive again. Kids under 3 don’t understand this idea; they’ll talk about dead people as if they went on a trip or took a nap, or will hold open the possibility that dead things can come back to life with the help of water, food, medicine, or magic.
My son was well under 3 when his first experience of what death might be took place, and he might not have processed it at all, or retained anything from it. Nonetheless: He and I were outside on a fall day, playing on the lawn, and he had been delighted by the appearance of a fluttery white moth (or, as he decided, “butterfly”). He chased after it, and I warned him as he pursued it that it was delicate and he ought to try not to hurt it.
The moth seemed, as most moths are, oblivious to my son. It would flutter about our heads, fly away and back, and rest haphazardly on the grass. At one such resting point, my son got close, announced his intention to “smack it,” and stepped on it.
It remained intact when he lifted his foot, it wasn’t smushed or smeared, but it was utterly still, dead. My son asked why it wasn’t flying anymore, and shouted at it to do so.
Oh crap, I thought. This is how he’s going to first learn about this. Okay, then.
“It can’t fly anymore, buddy. It’s broken.”
“We can fix it!”
“No, buddy. It’s dead. That means it’s not alive anymore, it can’t be fixed. The butterfly is gone now.”
And, as I had some thirty years before, my little boy cried his eyes out.
I don’t know what he took away from that, if anything. I’m sure he no longer remembers it, as he approaches the age of 4. In that moment, I hugged him, told him that it was okay, that he didn’t do anything bad, but that we have to be careful with animals, not just “smack” them, because they could break, too. Maybe next time we can decide to be more gentle with them. He seemed to think that was a good idea. And then I probably bribed him back to happiness with a juice box.