A couple of years ago, my friends David and T and their two little boys relocated from their hometown of Salt Lake City to live in Mount Vernon, Washington and start a tattoo parlor and a new life there. Shortly after their move, however, David died in a car accident and T, distraught and overwhelmed, had no choice but to go back to Utah.
I picked up a friend of T’s at SEATAC Airport, along with her young daughter, and we drove to Mount Vernon to help her pack everything while the children played. As I’m stacking all the books into boxes with only her friend’s daughter and T’s youngest son (both about 4) in the room with me, I hear the girl ask him, “What’s in there?”, Pointing to a large, sealed urn on the hearth not five feet away from me. I continue to grab books but innocuously observe them from the corner of my eye, so I don’t disturb the moment. He innocently said, “my dad’s in there.” I assumed that she was briefed on the situation somewhat on the plane ride by her mother, but she was very quiet all the same. I guess she was trying to grasp how a man’s body can fit into pottery, when she asked, “What part of him?”. “All of him! They burned him, and now he fits in here!” To which she replied, “Oh.” And then they ran outside as if nothing happened.
With Samhain/Halloween coming up, that timeless topic comes to mind that we humans are obsessed with: death. The seasons change, and in some areas of the Earth, death is literally in the air. The trees lose their leaves, as the temperature drops and frost begin to harden the soil. The days grow shorter as the darker half of the year approaches. Samhain was celebrated by early Europeans as a milestone between the light and dark half of the year and is celebrated by many cultures today as a time for the dead, whether literally or in memoriam. It is also the time when children dress up to be whatever they wish and go to school or friendly neighborhoods to collect candy and dental bills. But when do children understand what death is? And should this be taught to them or is it best to wait until someone they know passes?
Death might be seen by a child when they watch TV, or when a grandparent passes, or if they live in a war-torn country. I believe children understand this topic much more than we think they do, however, the cognitive concept of death is different for every child based on their unique development stages. Based on a publication by Barbara Kane in 1975, the first concept of mortality they grasp is the idea of irreversibility; once it is dead, it cannot be alive again. This concept is understood around the age of 3 or 4 (10% of 3-year-olds knew irreversibility, compared with 58% of 4-year-olds). Based on that study, a 2-year-old might not understand the finality of death; that with the aid of food or pills or magic, a person can be alive again.
Then, around the age of 5 and 6, they begin to understand a dead body is nonfunctional. When someone dies, they can no longer dream or burp or smile; that it just simply…stops. And around the age of 7, they begin to understand the concept of universality. That death happens to us all, not just on the TV, or old people, but everyone and everything. Usually, before this understanding, they think special people in their lives are omitted like teachers or their parents, maybe even themselves. Though the study states this is understood at the age of 7, sometimes I think I still don’t get it.
And then there’s the concept of coping. At the American Psychological Association meeting in August, Lance Garmon and Meredith Patterson, both professors of psychology at Salisbury University in Maryland, presented a study on the Harry Potter films and books and how it helps individuals to cope with death. Because so many characters in the series dying, including Harry’s parents in the very first book, they believe that younger fans who have a high level of death awareness due to a recent loss could begin to understand certain issues like dying. Teenagers who watched the films repeatedly or read the books over and over tended to have a higher sensitivity to the topic of death due to a loss of someone in their lives as children, and the story helped them to understand and cope. Garmon and Patterson suggest that parents should introduce the idea outside of a crisis by discussing the Harry Potter series with their kids. I didn’t have someone in my life die when I was a child, but I’ll never forget the first time I saw the horse, Artax dies in the film, The Neverending Story. And he didn’t just die from being shot or something; he perished in the Swamp of Sadness because he was too sad to save himself. THAT was a hard one for my parents to explain to me!
We learn about death at school through literature, science, history, and mythology, but the topic alone never seems to be discussed. I feel like if sex education is taught in some public schools, we should be allowed to have death education. To allow young students to use their critical thinking skills and debate euthanasia and different opinions of afterlife or lack thereof. This seems to be taboo to our society because it can be offensive or because we always fear it. Death is scary, and it is inherently sad and difficult to deal with. However, I think if we begin to discuss it with our children (whether someone they knew passed or not), it can not only help to teach them about its natural process, both miraculous and necessary as birth, but it can teach it to us, as well.
Editor’s note: Some very useful resources for teaching a reality-based view of death as natural and healthy are coming in a post soon!
Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.