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Death and Dying from Children’s Viewpoint Essay

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Updated: May 29th, 2021

Introduction

In my early childhood, I witnessed the deaths of close relatives and family pets. I remember one time we returned home after visiting our grandparents for a week and found the houseplant all dried up. My father’s explanation was that the plant had died. At the time, I thought dying was a reversible event and even went ahead to water the plant. However, my parents explained that water would not bring it back to life. Later, the death of our favorite pet, Molly, elicited my fear and anger towards death. I felt better when my parents explained that our dog had gone to a nice place called heaven. I also witnessed cartoon characters die and watched buildings crush people in films. In Sunday school, we were taught about heaven as a place where good people go after death. I can say that religion, the media, and my parents contributed to my early understanding of the concept of death. However, my parents played a greater role in shaping my idea of death and dying than religion and media sources did. They gave answers to my questions about death in a developmentally appropriate way that deepened my understanding of death as I grew up.

Parents

The death of a loved one can be a disorienting experience even for adults. Children, though highly inquisitive, are often oblivious of the emotional experience and sadness associated with death. My grandfather died when I was about three years. At his funeral, I could not understand the ‘bizarre’ behavior exhibited by my parents and adults at the ceremony. Everybody was so tearful, which made me associate death with sorrow. At first, I was running and playing with the other kids, but later I got concerned about the unusual somber mood. Unlike previous family functions that were characterized by joy and celebrations, this one was sorrowful.

At his gravesite, family members were sobbing. I was with my mom eating snacks oblivious of the intense sorrow in her heart. I remember asking her what we were doing. She replied, “Bidding bye-bye to grandpa” and burst into tears. The experience taught me that death is an undesirable incident that elicits emotions of loss and despair. As I grew older, I became more inquisitive about dying and the afterlife. The response I received from my parents whenever I told them that my favorite cartoon character had died was that it had gone to a better place called heaven.

Initially, I thought that they will come back and I will be able to see them again. I later learned that death is an irreversible occurrence. My parents explained to me that once the body dies, it ceases to live and has to be buried. Slaughter writes that, cognitively, young children (below three years) cannot distinguish between death and long journeys or trips (184). They always hold the idea that the deceased will come back or dead pets will spring back to life upon consuming food or drinks. Slaughter further notes that, at the age of four, most children start to understand the permanence of death (187). In retrospect, I understand why mourners were filled with despair and grief at my grandfather’s funeral. Their understanding of the irreversibility of the death of a loved one might have been the source of the sorrow.

Another aspect of death that I learned from my parents as a child was that dead things do not feel anything. My father told me that our dead dog could not eat after I tried to feed him in a bid to bring him back to life. He explained that a dead thing does not feel anything, eat, dream, or move. I learned that in death the body ceases to function. It cannot do the same functions that the living body does. Children begin to grasp the concept of non-functionality between the ages of five and seven (Black 101). They start to understand that a dead body is non-functional, as it has no life. I developed a view that life expires at the death of my parents’ revelation that our dog could no longer eat or play.

Initially, I thought that only old animals or plants die. I believed that our houseplant, Molly, and my grandfather died because they were old. I associated death with old age and frailty. However, I learned that even young children could die after a classmate in fourth grade succumbed to a brain tumor. Our teacher explained to us that he died because of something that grew inside his head. Interestingly, before his death, I held the thought that death does not take away children, parents, and teachers. Fox states that young children are often unaware of the universality of death (41). They understand that certain persons pass away, but cannot reconcile the fact that their loved ones can also die. In addition, they believe that their death will come later in old age (Fox 43). The death of my classmate made me understand that any living thing, young or old, can die.

I learned important lessons from my parents during the death of my grandfather. It became clear to me that death is strange and unexpected, even for adults. Although the loss of my grandfather caused a lot of pain and sorrow, it brought us together as a family. Mallon writes that people often keep memories of the departed by hanging on to personal items or pictures (92). These practices help in the healing process. My parents were reluctant at first to sell my grandfather’s household items because, according to my mother, they were of sentimental value to the family.

I also learned that the feeling of pain and loss among loved ones is universal. My parents found it difficult to maintain composure during the funeral. It became clear that, regardless of age or position, we are all vulnerable to death. In addition, I understood that some questions about life and death lack concrete answers. My parents’ responses to my questions about death always begun with the statement ‘I believe’ or ‘God knows’. I concluded that some things about death are beyond human understanding. It also became clear to me that death is a taboo subject. My parents’ conversations rarely featured topics about death or dying.

The process of healing after the death of a loved one can be challenging. My mother became unusually withdrawn after the death of my grandfather while my father showed pensive sadness. Mallon states that healing mechanisms differ between individuals (71). While some mourners might enjoy the company of many people, others might prefer solitude. Some people may also need items of the deceased as a keepsake to relive his or her memories. Therefore, the path towards complete healing is different for each person.

The Media

Media films that end with the death of the villain and the triumph of the superhero were my favorite entertainment while growing up. Normally, the burial of a wicked character was not marked with honor and respect as that of a superhero. The common rituals I used to see related to paying final respects, comforting the family, memorial service, and laying wreaths at the graveside. The death of a national figure could be marked with messages of condolences and visitations to support and comfort the family. I could see on television how family members surrounded the bedside of patients with terminal illnesses. I learned that at the deathbed, family presence and support are important.

Upon death, the body is kept in the morgue or funeral home for embalmment. In media shows, I used to see public visitations to pay final respects to the deceased. Often, you would see the casket opened for the mourners to view the body a day before the burial. I came to learn through my parents that visitation is meant to help individuals come to terms with the loss. In films, I could see close family members gathering around the casket to say their goodbyes and relive the memories of the deceased.

I was aged seven when my aunt died due to injuries sustained in an accident. Her funeral took place in our ancestral home, a remote location in the countryside. I attended the funeral with my parents. I noticed that the mourners spoke of the deceased as having ‘passed away’ instead of ‘died’. Later, when I asked my mother about it, she explained that the mourners euphemized death because it was an unpleasant experience. I also questioned why close family members gathered around the graveside when the body was being interred. My mother explained that surrounding the casket by immediate family members was a customary practice that emphasized their unity during the trying moments. She further said that any personal disputes must be put away during this event.

All the funerals I attended in my childhood involved a church service before interring the body. I learned that the rituals I witnessed, including the memorial service, eulogy, and interring the remains, were meant to help the family heal from the loss. The bereaved go through “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” during the grieving period (Mallon 78). Therefore, a message of hope is required to help them heal from the loss. The pastor leading the service during my aunt’s funeral explained that we would be able to see my aunt again during the second coming of Christ. He further stated that my aunt was in heaven, which, in my young mind, I considered a physical place that good people went to after death. I remember asking my father why we could not rejoice because she had gone to a better place. I came to learn later that death is a sad occasion because of the feeling of loss.

My early view about dying was that when the heart stops beating a person dies. I had learned from biology classes that when a living thing dies, its body processes stop functioning. However, in my teens, I heard from the media about cases of people pronounced dead by doctors coming back to life. The near-death experiences captured in a documentary varied between the survivors. While some claimed to see darkness, others said that they were ushered to a bright place, presumably heaven. The film further showed that the death of the human brain is slower than that of the body. I have come to learn that consciousness is an attribute of life. In death, one feels or hears nothing as the mind is not in a conscious state.

I have heard of patients under life support due to debilitating illnesses or injury. Although they have consciousness, the body is non-functional. I once watched in the news a case of a woman who had been under life support for ten years. The family members were objecting to the idea of turning off the machine like that would be tantamount to murder. I remember asking my father what he thought about life support systems for dying patients. He said that people in a vegetative state lack consciousness, which makes them technically dead. His view that such patients should be allowed to die naturally shaped my perspective on the use of life-prolonging interventions. I understood that death, whether natural or accidental, was a natural process and artificial interventions could not stop it.

Some media portrayals of life after death appear to be in conflict with religious teachings. While growing up, I used to watch horror movies that featured zombies brought back to life through supernatural ways. Although the characters were fictional, I believed that the deceased people I knew, including my aunt, would spring back to life at some point. However, after talking with my parents, I became convinced that death is irreversible. In this regard, my parents helped me overcome my fears and understand dying as a natural process. What happens after death is only speculative.

Religion

I have always been interested in knowing about what happens after death. Religion provides some answers to questions about where people go after death. The religious doctrines and beliefs expand our understanding of the supernatural world. When I was about thirteen, my father told me, that dying means ceasing to exist. I could not reconcile this view with what we were taught in church about life after death. He explained that a human is a living soul comprised of the body and the spirit. At death, the spirit leaves the body. He used an analogy of a light bulb, which goes off when power is cut out. The body cannot function without the spirit. The only way one would become alive again is when the giver of life returns the spirit to him or her. It became clear to me that although people may continue to live after death, they do so in a different form. I also came to learn that the spirit world might not be a physical place, but an abstract space operating in ways that are beyond the realms of human understanding.

Death is part of a religious journey that also includes birth and reincarnation in the afterlife (Panagore 78). One lesson I learned from religious studies in my early school days is that a heaven is a place for people who lead saintly lives. As such, I went to church, gave offerings and tithes, and followed biblical teachings. I held the view that all those good people that had died, including my grandfather, were in heaven. I also believed that wicked people, upon dying, go to hell where they suffer for eternity.

My upbringing in a Christian home shaped my view of death and the afterlife. At a young age, my mother taught me that because Christ resurrected from death, His believers would overcome it too. She taught me about the compassion of Christ and heaven, where God and the angels live (Shriver and Speidel 51). My worldview about the purpose of life was shaped by my religious upbringing. In the church, I learned about love, peace, and kindness as the attributes of those who would ascend to heaven upon death. My mom also told me death was an evil thing that brings pain and sorrow to many people.

Religion taught me that since Jesus overcame death, we no longer have to fear death. Death marks a transition to life in eternal happiness. I learned that death was introduced to the world because of the first sin. Moreover, although we may push death away, it is inevitable. We can only draw comfort from the belief that we will overcome it and live in eternal happiness.

Conclusion

Death or dying can be a painful thing to family members. When I was growing up, my parents played a critical role in shaping my early views about death. They answered my questions about death in an age-appropriate manner, which deepened my understanding of death. In addition, they guided me on issues of religion and media portrayals of death and dying.

Works Cited

Black, Derrick. “Bereavement in Childhood.” British Medical Journal 316.1 (2002): 93-133. Print.

Fox, Suzy. Good Grief: Helping Groups of Children when a Friend Dies. Boston, MA: New England Association for the Education of Young Children, 2000. Print.

Mallon, Brenda. Dying, Death and Grief: Working with Adult Bereavement. New York, NY: Sage Publications, 2011. Print.

Panagore, Peter. Heaven Is Beautiful: How Dying Taught Me That Death Is Just the Beginning. Newburyport, MA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2015. Print.

Shriver, Maria and Sandra Speidel. What’s Heaven. New York, NY: Golden Books Adult Publishing, 2007. Print.

Slaughter, Virginia. “Young Children’s Understanding of Death.” Australian Psychologist 40.3 (2005): 179-186. Print.

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