National Geographic

When Do Kids Understand Death?

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?

Turns out that psychologists have been investigating children’s ideas of death since the 1930s. When judged through a modern lens, some of these early studies seem a bit wacky. In the first, published in 1934, doctors interviewed boys living in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York. As part of the interview, they recorded the boys’ responses after a doll fell to the ground with a loud noise.

One of the most famous early studies was done by Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy. She interviewed nearly 400 children living in Budapest just after World War II, a time when death was everywhere. She simply asked them to answer, either in words or pictures, “What is death?”

Just one study looked at this topic in the 1950s, followed by eight in the 60s and two dozen in the 70s. Almost all of these studies, according to a fascinating review published in 1984, relied on interviews with children. Some, like Nagy’s, asked open-ended questions, whereas others were more specific, asking things like, Can a dead person come back to life? Can you think of someone who might not die? Will you die?

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. 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. Children begin to grasp death’s finality around age 4. In one typical study, researchers found that 10 percent of 3-year-olds understand irreversibility, compared with 58 percent of 4-year-olds.

The other two aspects of death are learned a bit later, usually between age 5 and 7. One, dubbed ‘nonfunctionality’, is the idea that a dead body can no longer do things that a living body can do. Before this is grasped, kids will affirmatively answer questions like, Can a dead person feel? or If someone died, could he still eat? Can he move? Can he dream?

Then there’s death’s most befuddling attribute, at least for me: its 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.”

These are all generalities and tendencies. Some kids develop more quickly than others. And some studies have found that emotionally traumatic events — such as the loss of a parent — can speed up a child’s understanding of death.

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.

There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Barry Vegter
    July 26, 2013

    Your article is about my Dad and my granddaughter. I am 63 and I am also having trouble understanding my Dad’s death. Thank you for explaining the research on the Emily’s understanding of Dad’s death. Bye-bye Opa. We love you.

  2. Tommy
    July 26, 2013

    I cannot recall when I first learnt of death. How common is this?

  3. Adrian Cho
    July 26, 2013

    Virginia, Give yourself 20 years and your understanding of death may be very different. When I was young (up into my 20s) I couldn’t come to terms with death, mostly because I couldn’t conceive of life, the universe, and everything going on without me. In my late 40s, I’m no longer bothered by that idea. If anything, I’m much more afraid of lingering in old age with a debilitating condition such as dementia. I’m still apprehensive about the process–I don’t want to die a painful death. But the idea that is will all be over someday? Honestly, at this point it’s no big deal. I’ve had this conversation a lot lately, as our 10-year-old daughter is by her own admission petrified by the very idea of death. I’ll tell her that, hopefully, by the time far in the future when it matters she may not be. She doesn’t get it at all–which is completely appropriate at her age, I think.

  4. David
    July 26, 2013

    Death was made quite clear from an early age for me. my parents didn’t shelter me much from media or conversation. you’ld probably be suprised at how much any given kid REALLY knows. the only real definitive factor to consider would be the child’s personal experience. this of course depends on where and how the child is raised.

  5. Shelley Sadow Frankel
    July 26, 2013

    As a School SW and child/adolescent and family therapist, I have worked with several pre school and latency aged children who have either witnessed the traumatic death offhand parents or experienced the unexpected death of a parent.

    You are correct that children ages 3 and 4 think death is reversible. There is also the defense mechanism: magical thinking, some children believe that their thoughts caused the death. There is also the cultural and religious factor to consider. In my experience it is healthier to use words such as death rather than, passed away which is ambiguous and confusing to children.

    Some children who have witnessed death, move back and forth in their affect and mood. Laughing and then feeling sad. At your rehearsal dinner, I sat next to a woman who works for sesame street. She sent me some bilingual/Spanish books w a CD about death to help parents talk to their children.
    There are two books I like one is Freddie the Leaf ( about hislifecycle) and another child’s book about death
    titled “Lifetimes”.
    I experienced the death Of my grandmother when I was 6 1/2 years old. I still remember thinking that I better be good bc my bubbe can see how I behave from heaven.
    It is also not recommended to tell children grandpa is sleeping.
    My dog passed away last July, and was cremated.
    I wanted to bury her in my backyard but that is another story. It still hurts me that her remains are in a box in my bedroom, she lived to a ripe old age, yet it gives me a pang of pain when I think about it.
    Shelley

  6. Edward Sadowsky, Esq.
    July 26, 2013

    Excellent article. At different stages of my life I viewed the concepts of death and dying differently. Mankind has embraced the existence of an after life, and there is some comfort in that belief. The author is very perceptive and I would look forward in reading further comments she may write. Is there an after life? The answer has to be in the affirmative as it would provide hope and the advancement of morality and ethics.

  7. Bruce Pomerantz
    July 26, 2013

    Terrific article..Bruce

  8. Barbara A. Cullom
    July 26, 2013

    My younger sister died earlier this month. We had lived in different states since my early 20s. i was blessed to be able to be at her home when she died at home with hospice. I am a retired hospice Chaplain, so the home setting for her death was very familiar to me. Now that I am back home in VA, I find it harder to deal with the reality of her death, because she had never been to my home. My being here and her not being here isn’t really different than at any other time. I have to remind myself that she is dead, not just in NJ. I keep coming across items on the internet that I want to email her about. The reality and finality of her death are still not really permanent to me – yet.

  9. Kathy K.
    July 26, 2013

    My thoughts and beliefs about death have changed over the years as my experience with it has grown. I imagine that your ideas might change as well.

    My brother-in-law had progressive MS and his children (my nieces) were aged 2 and 6 when he was diagnosed. He died when they were aged 12 and 16. I’m sure that their concept of death is different than a lot of other people, and I know that their strong faith in God helped them get through the trauma.
    My father recently died from dementia. He had been suffering for a long time. The father I knew had departed several years ago. By the time he died, I had already said my good-byes. I sometimes wish I had my niece’s faith.

  10. Linda
    July 26, 2013

    As a senior citizen, death does not seem intimidating. Living with pain or the issues discussed in the comments is very intimidating.
    As a child in a Catholic school we attended funeral masses regularly in the upper grades and sang in the choir. Rarely did we know the deceased. Only when one classmate’s mother died did it occur to us that it was more than a regular mass. I choose to not have a funeral in the off chance children might have to attend

  11. Kathy K.
    July 26, 2013

    Virginia,
    I want to extend my sympathies to you, your husband, and extended family.

    I have forgotten how raw emotions can be when someone close to you dies suddenly. It has been a long time since I experienced that aspect of death.

  12. Amy
    July 26, 2013

    Virginia – I’m so sorry to hear about your grandfather. My husband’s aunt (95 years young) passed recently and the funeral was quite sad but also joyful as we reflected on her life.

    Recently I realized that fear of death is illogical. This was very freeing for me – as previously I was so scared of it. Really – boiling it down – we don’t know why we’re here, where we’re going or anything at all along those lines. Sure our physical bodies will go into the ground, but we have no way of knowing where the self goes after death. Do we have a spiritual body? Maybe :)

  13. Madame George
    July 27, 2013

    Insightful article from the author. However, she could easily go a step farther and confront the glaringly obvious truth that the vast majority of adults (perhaps herself) do not grasp the finality of death. One needs to only looks at the death cults that abound around the world promising everlasting life.

    At least the author seems to admit she’s also ‘stuck’ in a pit. Hopefully, humans will be able to move past this.

  14. Deb
    July 27, 2013

    We have learned a great deal about children and grief associated with death from the Oklahoma City Bombing and the seveal devestating tornados that have occurred recently. A good resource for learning how to help children deal with tragic loss is:

    http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org/secondary.php?section=15&catid=191&id=1335

  15. Sandy
    July 27, 2013

    I was so sorry to hear of your loss Barry. My thoughts are with you and your family. What a wonderful article. When my dad passed I read a book called, The Falling of Freddie The Leaf, which I found to be helpful to my kids and me to help us understand.

  16. Gandarinha
    July 27, 2013

    I believe the first time I heard about death was when my grand-father died. I was 5 years old. I remenber I didn´t ask any questions.That means I had already some ideia of death.Today I am 90. Death doesn´t impress me. I´m just afraid of dying.

  17. Brian Schmidt
    July 27, 2013

    Interesting that some children understand irreversibility before nonfunctionality. It seems that all they’re understanding then is a label is permanently attached to a person/organism, without really knowing anything about the label.

  18. TPaign
    July 27, 2013

    When teaching our little kids about the need to be safe, while spouting typical parenting lines like “Don’t chase the ball into the street” or “Look out for moving cars in the parking lot,” I usually follow with phrases like “You’ll get smashed like a bug, and you’ll be dead forever.”

    Talking to kids in real terms, but also in simple language that they understand, helps to teach them the finite nature of their existence.
    (Finite, not infinite, if you’re agnostic or atheist parents like we are)

    While teaching faith in an afterlife may be comforting, I’d rather teach that life is finite. The more one’s own life is viewed as a limited resource, the higher the likelihood that one will focus on maximizing the happiness of themselves and those around them. In market terms, perceived scarcity increases value.

    A finite view also leads us to the understanding that we humans must solve our individual and collective problems ourselves, as there is no mystical force or savior which will do it for us.

    Ask my five year old boy, “What happens when you die.” Without any reservation or unease, he gives a simple answer, “You turn into dirt.”
    He is also “all boy,” loves monster trucks and Nascar, and is a loving and compassionate kid.

  19. Michael
    July 27, 2013

    I remember when I first realized what death was. I was seven and had picked out a kitty from the litter whom I named King. The next morning he was dead. I was told the tom cat killed him. I was sad of course but I went to bed that night and thought about my grandpa and how old he was (he was 69) and that he would die. That made me sad. Then I realized that some day I would get old and die. I cried and cried and could not get to sleep. I got up and asked my parents about it. They told me not to worry, that when it was my time to die I would want to die. That was enough consolation for me.

  20. William
    July 27, 2013

    Typical slow learning curve for kids who never see real death, just on TV and the movies.

    Farm kids, hunters, and others that “kill their own dinner” learn all this very early; that would be the 10% of 3 year olds that understand irreversability, as cited by the author.

  21. Andrea Messina
    July 27, 2013

    If anyone is interested in what Jesus Christ has to say about what happens when we die, see the link below (by Lorraine Day MD).

    http://www.goodnewsaboutgod.com/death.htm

  22. Thomas Turk
    July 27, 2013

    And when will journalists understand that death is merely a transition and time of rest for the spirit, till the reincarnation into a new body. Even the bible, once a history book, but much changed to make it a book to ‘convert’ had reincarnation mentioned, till the Pope in the mid part of the last millenia had it removed.

    for adults to get a clear understanding of death, so they don’t misform their children, open the The Pleiadian Mission by US psychologist Randolph Winters. This information comes from a race who are far in advance of our limited knowledge.

  23. Larry Solis
    July 27, 2013

    45 years ago, as part of a paper for college, I interviewed some 30 children, kindergartners and first graders about death. They all knew what it meant…all of them. They weren’t so great at articulating it…they were children. I happened to be their teacher too…most of your article is non-sensical..spoken from the point of an adult…with pre-conceived notions…hence biased.

  24. Emanuell
    July 28, 2013

    the kids of this times watch the death everywhere, we have to prepare our children for this times

  25. Joey
    July 28, 2013

    In the 1940s, when I was very young, my parents took us to all the wakes and funerals. They showed us and explained a little to us. Today in my 70s, my attitude toward death is calm and reasonable, even my own death. The Bible is very helpful on the subject. Decades ago a brother-in-law died in a hunting accident, and his body was not recovered for days due to a car crash into a swollen mountain stream. The four children, baby to 6 years, were conveniently kept at home with a sitter during all the funeral activities. They knew that his body was found (but where was his head?). Today they are in their 40s and still struggle with death, particularly his death. So, take your young children to funerals, help them bury a pet, answer their little questions briefly. Everyone will benefit.

  26. James Hedman
    July 28, 2013

    Given my observed behavior of male adolescents and young adults I would put the awareness of mortality at about age 28 rather than age 7.

  27. jbspry
    July 29, 2013

    “When Do Kids Understand Death?”

    (…what makes you think you do?)

  28. Diane Smith
    July 29, 2013

    My mother did a wonderful thing. When I was about 7 or 8, she took me to the funeral home to pay respects to one of her friends who had died. She calmly explained that the man in the casket had died and why (he had serious health issues stemming from alcoholism). I have never feared or misunderstood death from that day and taught my own children in like fashion. They, too, accept it as the Great Circle of Life, part of existence, not to be feared, simply to be accepted. Thank you, Mama.

  29. Annabelle
    July 30, 2013

    Firstly I am sorry for your loss. Secondly thank you so very much for sharing this. My daughter is 3 and has recently had to say goodbye to her Opa (my father in law 62). It has been an incredibly difficult time and my daughter has struggled a lot. Reading this explains a lot to us.

  30. pgangadharan
    July 31, 2013

    Death the final journey from this world.

  31. Virginia
    August 2, 2013

    We just buried my daughter’s father-in-law, age 76, but he too died suddenly due to subdermal hematoma. at the wake my soon to be six year old grandson kept wanting to open the casket and let Grandpa out. He would always give him a kiss before leaving hospice and wanted to do so again. the casket was kept closed and eventually he understood it would not be opened. 2 and 1/2 months later we buried him at Arlington and I believe my grandson finally realized what death was. he saw his dad and mom and their grief and he too was sad. he is a very deep thinking little boy and still has two grandmas and one grandpa on his mom’s side. I felt your article was very meaningful and poignant. thank you for writing it and sharing with us.

  32. Roi’ikka-Ta
    August 6, 2013

    i actually remember this very well. as a small child i could not understand what death was. i was maybe about 2 or 3 years old. it did not come to me until it was actually explained to me. mysterious as this topic may be, there may be something there about how we do not understand this. is it a curse once explained to us? here lies the tale . .

  33. michele
    August 6, 2013

    I think we could learn a lesson from the child. I wish it would stay that easy. I remember losing my grandmother at 10 and not really understanding at that point what was going on. She went to the hospital and she didn’t come back. I remember looking for her for a long time…waiting …always in the back of my head wondering where she was. I don’t remember when I finally realized this was a thing to be sad about. Maybe hearing my father cry at the kitchen table for her was the turning point for me. And when I lost my grandfather two years later I knew his leaving was permanent. I wish I could go back to that time where I didn’t feel the pain and loss like I do now. I am glad in a way that my parents didn’t discuss death with us when grandma died. I was able to continue being a child and I missed her and waited for her return, but I didn’t hurt and I wasn’t sad. When dealing with my own grandchildren when my mother recently passed, I decided I would not cry in front of them and I would only speak to them about her in a positive, now way. When they asked me a question like where was she at, I said she went to fly with the angels…her time here with us is up. They seemed to understand that answer as she wasn’t coming back, but they were sad for her. I mean…who doesn’t want to fly with angels? I hope they were able to hold onto that little bit of innocence a little bit longer.

  34. zale
    August 19, 2013

    It’s interesting to me that you find the universality of death to be befuddling. To me it’s a comfort. Not every living thing is born, but everything dies, it is one thing we have in common and I find that reassuring.
    But maybe that’s what happens when you grow up with your bedroom window overlooking a cemetary.

  35. Lucy
    September 19, 2013

    It’s interesting that I have found this article today, as I found out yesterday that a little girl in my daughter’s ballet class died suddenly four days ago, aged just 7. She was at ballet last week as usual; yesterday the teacher informed us of her death. The examples all given here, although obviously deeply sad, are of old people dying – people who have died when they ‘should have’ (by that I mean as nature intended, I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s loss). What I am struggling with at the moment is how to help my daughter manage her feelings about the death of another young child, and answer her questions without her feeling afraid that she might die as well, not as an old person, but next week. I would love some insights if anyone has any.

  36. davor
    January 29, 2014

    Some believers might argue the irreversibility of death. However, it is hard to explain to children the concept of death. Even an adult cannot think about it properly without an option of losing mind. Children are considered more perfect than adults, hence their perception might be taken more seriously one day through more scientific approach. I do believe that questions about death start when individual memory begins as if matters.

  37. R
    August 9, 2014

    I first understood that death meant that they would never come back at the age of around two during a visit to my terminally ill grandfather. I remember knowing that breathing is a good thing and not breathing is a bad thing.
    When he died my mother told me stuff which while I felt better at her saying it, it was all a bunch of crap.
    I never went to the funeral because it was one of the ones where you look at the body to pay your respects, I couldn’t go on my mothers request.
    Even now I am slightly disappointed that I never played my final respects. He was one of my closest relatives and I wish I could have gone to the funeral.

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