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A 6-year old’s answer to a riddle was so much deeper

I came across a recent article that caught my eye, both as a former teacher and as a death doula. A teacher started the school day with a riddle “I am the beginning of everything, the end of everywhere. I'm the beginning of eternity, the end of time & space.”, but instead of giving the “correct answer- the letter E”, the 6-year-old unnamed student proved they knew so much more. Their answer was "death".

The article continues with important information. “An article in National Geographic breaks down the three key truths that children must eventually learn about death. First, that it's irreversible (people who die aren't just on vacation). Second, it makes your body non-functional (people who are dead aren't just asleep). And third, it's universal (everything and everybody dies eventually).”

Other studies point out these facts. Younger children are also more likely than older children to think that death is avoidable if you are clever or lucky (e.g., Nagy, 1948) and to indicate that death only occurs in the remote future (e.g., Candy-Gibbs, Sharp, & Petrun, 1984; Derry, 1979; Lee, 1987; Swain, 1979).

“Younger children are more likely than older children to view death as temporary and reversible. Some young children see death as similar to sleep (from which you will wake up) or like a trip (from which you will return).” (Mark W. Speece, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, School of Medicine, Wayne State University,1995)

The level of understanding that children have about death depends on two factors: their developmental level and their experience of it.

If you are curious about a child’s developmental level, a great resource is A Guide to Children’s Grief, Loss and Healing by Every Step Grief+Loss Services Home of Amanda the Panda of which I have quoted some basic information.

“Infants can grasp that the adults in their life are sad or angry but cannot understand the concept of death.

Preschoolers may see death as a reversible, non-permanent event and may invent magical theories as to what causes death and what is related to the dying process.

Elementary School-aged children understand the permanence of death and understand the correlation of events that lead to someone’s dying; however, death is often perceived as an event that solely happens to other people.

Middle School-aged children have a full understanding of the physical aspects of death and its finality; however, some abstract concepts surrounding death and dying may be beyond their reach.

High School-aged children have a full understanding of death and dying, its finality, and the impact of a death on the lives of themselves and others.” (Page 10)

Moving onto how a child’s experience of death factors into their understanding of death reminds me of this study. “Death is an aspect of life that is not only inevitable but also painful, especially for children. Children do not have the knowledge or experience that adults have, and they are unprepared to deal with the death of a loved one or even of a beloved cartoon character in a movie” (Graham, 2013)

Children’s experiences with death (i.e., actual experience and what they have been told about death) are critical to their understanding of it. Every child has his or her own concept of death. Past experiences with death (family member, friend, or pet,), as well as age, emotional development, and surroundings are what most influence a child's idea of death. Cartoons, movies, TV, video games, and even books are filled with images of death.

Is this the only input we want them to have? It is best to explain death to children before someone they love is dying, or the situation is emotionally charged. Use everyday experiences to talk about the life cycle:

• dying leaves

• wilting flowers

• seasons

• dead birds

As a death doula, I also think it is very important to teach children about rituals and funerals- don’t just flush the dead fish down the toilet when they aren’t looking. I encourage the asking of questions but advise the following:

• Be open and honest

• Be brief and simple

• Don’t bombard them with information they haven’t asked for or can’t understand

• Don’t withhold anything if they are ready to hear it.

• Tell them a little, then watch for their reaction

• Saying “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer

Many adults believe that seeing, talking, or thinking about death will harm children so they need to be protected from it and that is the furthest from the truth. When explaining death to children do not use euphemisms (that may cause more harm then good). David Kessler in his book Rights of the Dying discusses this important point. If we don’t tell them the truth, what they imagine will be worse.

Adult says Child imagines

“Gone to sleep” afraid to go to bed

“God has taken X away” cruel God snatches good people

“Death is darkness” afraid of the dark

“X was so good that God wanted may be afraid to be good

them with Him”

“X is going on a really long trip” X has abandoned them

An adult's feelings and fear about death are often transferred to his/her/their children. Treating death as a part of life is hard, but it may help ease some of the fear and confusion linked with it.

In conclusion, death conversations can’t be messed up, but they can be awkward, painful, and even stilted. There is no “correct” script to follow. Sex and death are two of the biggest taboos and in my opinion they don’t get talked about enough with children. Don’t have one “big” conversation about death, but instead have small ones, and often. Take advantage of “teachable moments”. Be open to discussions. If you need help facilitating this difficult conversation at any age, please feel free to reach out for help. Death doulas are a great resource.

Excerpts from my Eventbrite presentation of Children and Grief presented on-line on August 12,2022 were used in this blog.

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