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The Development Of A Concept Of Death

When one looks and listens carefully, one learns that children are very interested and curious about death. It is one of their first intellectual puzzles that is played out whenever they see a dead bug on the windshield; when they engage in the game of "here" and "not here" in peekaboo; or when they shoot a target dead with the shotgun blast of their finger. Yet, a mature understanding of death, involving a number of components, is accomplished only along with an overall conceptual development about how things in the world work. Most adults and older children understand that death is universal and inevitable; all living things die. Death is irreversible (the dead do not come back), and the body becomes nonfunctional (all functions and activities associated with the physical being cease). The causes of death, ranging from the deterioration of old age, illness, accidents, and homicides, to perhaps extreme psychological distress, are also fairly well known. In contemporary Western societies, it is rare to find widespread belief that magic, bad thoughts, or evil spirits are the sources of death. Finally, a foundation of most Western (and Eastern) belief systems is that some intangible dimension of persons—their soul or spirit—continues beyond the death of their physical bodies, a concept known as noncorporeal continuation.

A classic 1948 study by Maria Nagy of almost 400 Hungarian children aged three to ten revealed that arriving at a mature concept of death requires development through three stages. "Auntie Death," as Nagy was called, learned through interviews and pictures drawn by the children that between the ages of three and five years (Stage 1), children believed that death involved a continuation of life, but at a reduced level of activity and experiences. The dead do not do much, their condition resembles sleep, and they can return to the world of the living. Of greatest concern to the youngest children was the fear of separation, not necessarily the fear of dying or being dead. During Stage 2, identified by Nagy as from five to nine years of age, children progressed to an understanding that death is final and irreversible. Death takes on concrete imagery and a personality, in the guise of skeletons, or the "boogeyman." Such personification leads to another interesting belief of this period: Death can be evaded, if you can only outsmart or outrun that nasty boogeyman! Thus, universality in death is a concept yet to be achieved. Final, the achievements of Stage 3 (age nine and older) reflected the mature components of death.

Although this research was done in the mid-twentieth century, Nagy's findings continue to be applicable. Subsequent research has suggested that children arrive at a mature concept of death at an earlier age than suggested by Nagy, that children do not personify death to the extent that Nagy found, and that modern technology has found its way into their descriptions (death is like a hard drive crash). Furthermore, there is a strong connection between death concepts and overall cognitive development, so that children's understanding of what causes death changes from magical ("I wished he was dead and now he is"), naive ("You die from eating a dirty bug"), and moral ("My Daddy died because I was a bad child") to a more scientific, rational approach ("You die when your body wears out or when you get an incurable disease"). Researchers have also learned that it is too simplistic to view just age as the determining factor with regard to death concepts. Children who have experienced a parent's death, who are dying themselves, or who have witnessed violent, traumatic death will perceive death in an adultlike manner at much earlier ages than children who have not had such experiences.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3Death - The Development Of A Concept Of Death, Children Who Are Dying, Childhood Grief, Helping Children With Death Experiences