Stage Theory of the Development of Childrenʼs Understandings of Death

The best-known theory of the development of childrenʼs understandings of death was put forward by a Hungarian psychologist named Maria Nagy (1948, 1959). According to Nagy (1948, p. 7), there are three major developmental stages in childrenʼs understandings of death: “The child of less than five years does not recognize death as an irreversible fact. In death it sees life.” In this stage, Nagy maintained that children either do not fully distinguish the concept of death from other concepts or its full implications have not yet been grasped. For example, death is not seen as final when life and consciousness are attributed to the dead. This might be because death is understood either as a departure (a kind of continued life elsewhere) or as a sleep (a diminished form of life). The finality of death is also not fully grasped when children cannot completely separate death from life. In short, although death exists, it is not absolutely final or definitive. “Between the ages of five and nine death is most often personified and thought of as a contingency.” According to Nagy, children in this second stage accept the existence and definitiveness of death, but they think of death as a person or reality that is outside or remote from them. As a result, death is conceived of as final, but avoidable or not inevitable and not universal. Those caught by the external force do die; those who escape or get away from the clutches of that force do not die. Later researchers emphasized the theme of deathʼs avoidability in this stage rather than its personification. Many children in this stage of their understandings of death are not satisfied with the simple fact of a loved oneʼs disappearance; they want to know where and how the deceased person continues to live. This may lead a child to speculate about the nature of life in the grave on the basis of the childʼs limited life experiences, thus combining keen insight and misinterpretations, as well as feelings of anxiety and fear about what is going on. “In general only after the age of nine is it recognized that death is a process happening in us according to certain laws.” According to Nagy, in this third stage children recognize that death is a process operating within us. Such children view death as both final and universal, an aspect of life that is inevitable and not avoidable. Nagy suggested that this reflects a realistic view of both death and the world. Nagy wrote that because “the different sorts of answers can be found only at certain ages, one can speak of stages of development” (1948, p. 7). RELEVANCE. Clearly, childrenʼs understandings of the concept of death will influence how they react and respond to a significant death-related experience in their lives. Such understandings are relevant to how they will interpret the meaning(s) of any death-

related experience that they may encounter and what they will view as the most important aspects of that experience. CAUTIONS. Nagy added this caution: “It should be kept in mind that neither the stages nor the above-mentioned ages at which they occur are watertight compartments as it were. Overlapping does exist” (1959, p. 81). We should resist the tendency to treat any stage-based theory in an overly rigid way, to draw unduly sharp lines between its stages, or to apply it in fixed, mechanical ways. All aspects of cognitive development in childhood are complex and highly individualized. Particular children are organic, living beings with multiple dimensions, not elevators moving in an inflexible, mechanical way through a set of preordained steps or levels. Further, an inability to grasp the finality or universality of death does not leave a child in blissful ignorance. Even children who think of death as a kind of ongoing living somewhere else can find it painful to be separated from a loved one and to experience other changes in their lives. A child does not have to grasp fully the finality of death or the complete cessation of bodily activities in order to react to separation from the dead person. Further, it is useful to keep in mind that research on childrenʼs understandings of death —some of which has supported the general outlines of Nagyʼs theory—has been plagued by methodological problems. That led Stambrook and Parker (1987, p. 154) to characterize the literature in this field as offering a “confusing array of results.” Once again, we should draw upon research and theories in the field of death, dying, and bereavement in a prudent and thoughtful way, rather than uncritically and superficially. Finally, Nagy (1948, p. 27) herself offered the following lesson: “To conceal death from the child is not possible and is not permissible. Natural behavior in the childʼs surroundings can greatly diminish the shock of its acquaintance with death.”

Five Principal Subconcepts Included within the Concept of Death
Mark Speece and Sandor Brent (1994, 1996) proposed that the concept of death is not a simple, uncomplicated notion. Rather, they contended that this concept embraces five distinguishable subconcepts, some with their own subordinate components or elements (see Table 4 at end of document). The theme of universality is often found in theories of childrenʼs concepts of death, although it is not often identified as a distinct subconcept. It is reflected in oneʼs awareness that all living things must eventually die. However, this is a complex point to grasp, not a simple one. Universality embraces three closely related notions: allinclusiveness, inevitability, and unpredictability. All-inclusiveness means that every living thing will die, that no living thing is exempt from death. Inevitability means that all living things must die, that death is unavoidable for living things. And unpredictability means that we do not know when living things will die even though we know that all of them will and must die. According to Speece and Brent, the finality of death is captured in two additional subconcepts. Irreversibility means that once a living thing has made the transition from being alive to being dead, it can never again be alive (barring miracles or magic). Nonfunctionality means that death involves the complete and final cessation of all of the life-defining capabilities or functional capacities typically attributed to a living thing. In addition to the above, Speece and Brent argued that there are two additional subconcepts included within the concept of death. Causality is the subconcept whereby children (and others) seek to understand why and how living things die. Here children ask about the events or conditions that can and do bring about the death of a living thing. Noncorporeal continuation is seen when children try to grasp or articulate their understanding of some type of continued life apart from the physical body that has died. Speece and Brent believe that most children (and many adults) often indicate their belief in some type of continued life form of a soul or spirit after the death of the physical body. RELEVANCE. If Speece and Brent are correct in their analysis of the subconcepts included within the concept of death, it is not surprising that children (as well as many adolescents and adults) have difficulty grasping the full implications of death. Thus, when children are bereaved they will ask questions about the meaning of what has happened. For example, a child who does not grasp some aspects of the subconcept of universality may accept one death but question if other deaths will occur or if everyone must eventually die. Similarly, a child who has difficulty grasping the finality of death may wonder whether or not that person might come back to life at some point. Also, as children explore the concept of death, they are likely to try to grasp what it means for their own lives. For example, bereaved children may ask questions like, “Did I cause the death?”, “Is it going to happened to me?”, and “Who is going to take care of

me?” In these questions, a bereaved childʼs egocentrism is evident, as are concerns about causality (perhaps associated with magical thinking) and personal safety. Further, whatever the child accepts as part of the loss- or death-related experience at any given point and thus what the child is or may be coping with at that point is likely to evolve as his or her understandings both of death in general and of this particular experience develop. CAUTIONS. Speece and Brent (1996, p. 43) noted that, “Most studies have found that by seven years of age most children understand each of the key bioscientific components—Universality, Irreversibility, Nonfunctionality, and Causality.” Still, they added that, “Age by itself explains nothing. It is rather a convenient general, omnibus index of a wide range of loosely correlated biological and environmental variables.” Once again, the caution is not to overemphasize age in what we expect children to be able to understand about death. A second point concerns the view that children recognize that death is possible for all other people before they apply it to themselves. Against this, Speece and Brent thought it more likely that most children understand their own personal mortality before they understand that all other people die. If so, a bereaved childʼs personal sense of mortality may be heightened by the death of a significant other in his or her life. For bereaved children whose understandings of death lead them to their own personal concerns, it is important to reassure them in a reliable way that someone will be available to provide them with the support and care they need. They may also need to maintain an emotional connection with the deceased person by holding onto symbolic linking objects such as pictures or gifts.

Factors Influencing Death-Related Attitudes and Understandings
CHILDHOOD Childrenʼs attitudes toward death and their understandings of death are influenced by many factors. Robert Kastenbaum (1977) suggested that four of the most important of these influential factors are: developmental level, life experiences, individual personality, and patterns of communication and support. We have already drawn attention to physical, psychological (cognitive and emotional), social, and spiritual development and need not say more about that here. Life experiences vary widely among children, but obviously the quantity and quality of a childʼs encounters with death will influence his or her attitudes toward and understandings of death. For example, children may experience the death of a favorite pet. In addition, children in our society receive many messages about death from multiple sources, such as the media, their parents, and other adults. Some of these messages suggest that death is not an acceptable topic for discussion, even while other messages (such as the daily fare of traumatic events in television news reports) bring death-related topics into the homes of children. In addition, familiar forms of childhood games and play, as well as well-known rhymes, songs, humor, and fairy tales, demonstrate that death is not absent from the fantasy world of childhood. Individual personality is another influential factor that can be critical in many ways, although we do not know exactly how it functions in relationship to childrenʼs deathrelated attitudes and understandings. Finally, patterns of communication and support refer both to the ways in which a child is or is not willing to share thoughts and concerns with others, as well as to the assistance and encouragement that is or is not available to that child from others. RELEVANCE. Developmental level, life experiences, individual personality, and patterns of communication and support are important variables in influencing how a child engages with all of the experiences in his or her life. They will be particularly important in determining how a child thinks, feels, and acts when confronted by a significant loss or death in his or her life. CAUTIONS. One basic lesson from this exploration of factors that influence deathrelated attitudes and understanding during childhood is that normal, healthy children do have thoughts and feelings about death. They are naturally curious about this and many other subjects. Their desire to know and understand is likely to be heightened when their thoughts and feelings are stimulated by an important loss or death in their lives. Adult helpers will want to be sensitive to the ways in which these variables influence how a child reacts and responds to an important loss or death.

ADOLESCENCE. Although there is great diversity among adolescents in our society and a wide variety of death-related attitudes held by those adolescents, researchers (e.g., Keating, 1990) generally agree that before or by the beginning of the adolescent era individuals with normal cognitive development are capable of grasping the concept of death and its principal subconcepts. Still, it is not enough merely to say that adolescents are capable of thinking about death in ways that are characteristic of adults. Noppe and Noppe (1991, 1996, 1997) proposed that adolescent understandings of death and their attitudes toward death may be influenced by ambiguities or tensions arising from biological, cognitive, social, and emotional factors. Rapid biological maturation and sexual development is associated in many adolescents with an awareness of inevitable physical decline and ultimate death. This tension is reflected in high-risk, death-defying behaviors among adolescents who seek to challenge or “cheat” death, even though most do not experience tragic consequences. These behaviors are particularly hazardous in a world of high-powered automobiles, readily available drugs and firearms, eating disorders, binge drinking, and HIV. Adolescents conflicted by such challenges and possibilities may look fondly at what they seem to have lost in moving on from the more restricted, apparently simpler, world of childhood. Newly developed cognitive capacities help most adolescents to search for their own identities and to reevaluate their parentsʼ values, while also challenging them to take into account the inevitability of death. Of course, thinking about death in the abstract may or may not coexist with awareness of its personal significance for an individual adolescent. Still, as they contemplate what the future holds, adolescents may glimpse both positive and negative possibilities. In the end, they must come to appreciate that although there is much they can do to influence the shape of their futures, it is also true that many things are beyond human control. Changing social relationships with family members and peers can be both enriching and isolating. As their relationships enlarge in scope, especially by moving outside of their family of origin, adolescents are challenged to create a viable social life and to avoid a “social death.” A new peer group offers a context in which an adolescent can try out and be comfortable in a new identity, but it also imposes scrutiny and its own demands for conformity. This is further complicated when the chosen peer group is a gang that devotes some of its energies to violent behavior and strife with others. Also, in many adolescent peer groups, transient interpersonal difficulties can become sources of anguish and despair. For many adolescents, this may be compounded by moving into new academic and cultural settings, and by specific ethnic influences that may encourage or inhibit certain kinds of public behaviors, such as the expression of grief and other reactions to loss. Finally, adolescent feelings about development and death are likely to be closely intertwined. Achieving autonomy and individuation during the adolescent years is not only a matter of abandoning parent-child attachments begun in infancy. The real

challenge for developing adolescents is to reformulate and make qualitative changes in such attachments, even as they develop new peer group attachments. All of this can involve threats to an adolescentʼs sense of self-esteem and purpose in life. Developmental feelings of loss and grief—the fear of losing oneʼs self—coexist in many adolescents with feelings of being intensely alive. Adolescent attitudes toward death are reflected in the entertainment media (e.g., video games, music, movies, and television) that are so much a part of the lives of many adolescents and preadolescents and that are all too often flooded with death-related topics and themes, especially those associated with violence. RELEVANCE. The main issue in this review of factors that influence adolescent attitudes toward and understandings of death is this. What do individual adolescents learn from all of their life experiences about death, loss, and grief both in general and as it relates to them personally? Does a specific adolescent feel distanced from these experiences and invulnerable to their implications, or do they have personal force and relevance for that individual? And how does a particular bereavement experience bear upon all of this? CAUTIONS. Many adolescents tend to live in the moment and not to appreciate personal threats associated with death. The key issue for these adolescents may not arise directly from their capacity to think about death but rather from ways in which the significance of death-related concepts is or is not related to their personal lives. This may not apply to adolescents who have broad and personal experiences with death. In general, however, most adolescents struggle to grasp the personal significance of death by confronting a paradox: they want to keep their feelings in perspective and distance themselves from intense death-related experiences, while at the same time they attempt to find meaning in abstract concepts of death by applying them in ways that have personal reference and meaning.

Table 1 Principal Eras in Human Development during Childhood and Adolescence
Era Infancy Toddlerhood Early childhood (sometimes called play age or the preschool period) Middle childhood (sometimes called school age or the latency period) Adolescence Approximate Age Predominant Issue Hope Will or self-control Purpose or direction Virtue Birth through 12–18 Basic trust vs. months mistrust Infancy to 3 years 3–6 years Autonomy vs. shame and doubt Initiative vs. guilt

6 years to puberty

Industry vs. inferiority


Puberty to about 21 or 22 years

Identity vs. role confusion


Note: All chronological ages given here are approximate. SOURCE: Based on Erikson, 1963, 1968.

Table 2 Tasks and Conflicts for Adolescents by Maturational Phase
Phase Early Adolescence Approximate Age 11–14 Task Emotional separation from parents Competency/ mastery /control Intimacy and commitment Conflict Separation (abandonment) vs. reunion (safety) Independence vs. dependence Closeness vs. distance

Middle Adolescence Late Adolescence

14–17 17–21 or 22

SOURCE: Fleming & Adolph, 1986, p. 103.

Table 3 Piagetʼs System of Cognitive Development
Period and Stage Life Period Some Major Characteristics There are individual differences in chronological ages. Each stage includes an initial period of preparation and a final period of attainment; thus, whatever characterizes a stage is in the process of formation. I. Period of sensorimotor Infancy (0–2) “Intelligence” consists of sensory and motor actions. No conscious thinking. Limited language. No concept of reality. (By the end of age 2, children have attained on average 250– 300 words.)

II. Period of preparation and organization of concrete operations 1. Stage of preoperational thought Early childhood (2– 7) Egocentric orientation. Magical, animistic, and artificialistic thinking. Thinking is irreversible. Reality is subjective. Orientation ego-decentered. Thinking is bound to concrete. Naturalistic. Recognizes laws of conservation and reversibility. Propositional and hypo-deductive thinking. Generality of thinking. Reality is objective.

2. Stage of concrete operations/thinking

Middle childhood/ preadolescence (7 – 11 or 12) Adolescence and adulthood (12+)

III. Period of formal operations

SOURCE: From “Concepts of Death: A Developmental Perspective” by H. Wass. In H. Wass and C. A. Corr (Eds.), Childhood and Death, p. 4. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1984.

Table 4 Subconcepts Embraced by the Concept of Death
Subconcept Universality All-inclusiveness Inevitability Unpredictability Irreversibility Nonfunctionality Causality Noncorporeal continuation SOURCE: Based on Speece & Brent, 1996. Subordinate Component Typical Questions from a Child “Is it true that all living things must eventually die?” “Does everyone die?” “Does everyone have to die?” “Is the timing of death certain and predictable?” “Once you are dead, can you come back to life again?” “What do you do when you are dead?” “Why do living things die? What makes them die?” “What happens after death? Where does your soul or spirit go when you die?”

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