An Expert Explained To Me How Young Kids Process Death – Here's What I Learned

by Lara Ehrlich
Originally Published: 
serious 3 year old boy.
Scary Mommy and danishkhan/Getty

For once, my daughter Cora* is careful while descending the stairs and does not leap from the second step. She comes to me wide-eyed, cradling something in her fist.

“It’s a ladybug,” she whispers, unfolding her dirty fingers. “He’s dead.”

At three and a half, Cora loves bugs, witches, the Rat King from The Nutcracker, and the friends she hasn’t seen since school closed in March. As COVID-19 has ravaged the globe, we try not to hide what’s happening from her, but we haven’t explicitly talked about death either. How has it snuck in?

“What does it mean to be dead?” I ask.

Exasperated by my ignorance, she marches past me into the kitchen and proclaims, “I will throw him in the trash.”

Cora often reveals flashes of awareness that transcend the borders of where I’ve placed her understanding. This one leaves me shaken, wondering what she grasps about life and death — and about the global pandemic that is beyond even my own comprehension.

We’ve said that “bad germs” are responsible for closing her school. We’ve explained why we wear masks when we go outside (hers printed with unicorns). How could she not have heard about death? In the midst of this pandemic, its specter is everywhere. I worry about how to support Cora as she awakens to mortality.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I interviewed pediatrician David Schonfeld, founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, for an article on supporting children through trauma. Now, he’s involved in developing the guidelines for schools to reopen amidst the pandemic. Schonfeld is an expert at helping children face death, so I ask if he could coach me through talking about it with my daughter. I interview him by phone in my childhood bedroom while my parents watch Cora.

“How do children develop an understanding of mortality under normal circumstances?” I ask.

Schonfeld tells me that we begin to become aware of death when we understand that we’re alive, at about six months old. Until then, when a person or object leaves our sight, they cease to exist in the world, and in our minds. Since we don’t remember them, we’re incapable of grieving their loss.

At six months, we begin to develop object permanence and understand that a person or object, when out of our sight, continues to exist. We’ll remember important people and cry when they leave the room; the recognition of loss means we can now grieve.

I ask Schonfeld if Cora discovered death when she saw the dead ladybug. As she bursts through my bedroom door, Schonfeld says, “No, she’s been learning about death ever since she was born.”

Like many other working parents of small children, we’ve been plowing through Disney+ to keep Cora occupied while we catch up on email. One morning, she chooses The Lion King, and as Mufasa’s death scene approaches, we offer her an opportunity she will never have in real life: to skip the sad parts.

She chooses to watch, so I hold her as if to shield her from Mufasa’s death with my body, and when the stampede dust settles, we pause.

“Do you know what happened?” I ask.

Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

“Simba’s daddy got dead.” She gazes at the TV, where the cub has crawled beneath his father’s heavy paw.

“Do you know what that means?”

She shakes her head.

“It means he isn’t going to wake up.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” she says, blinking down at her lap. She rests her hand on my arm. “Can you press play now?”

My husband and I exchange a questioning glance over her head. Does she have no compassion? But as Simba grows up in the savannah, Cora asks, “When is his dad coming back?”

She just doesn’t understand death yet, despite recognizing it onscreen and in her palm.

Schonfeld tells me that to fully comprehend death, children must grasp four concepts, starting with irreversibility — when someone dies, they don’t come back to life — and finality, that when we die, our life functions stop. Without an understanding of finality, children can become preoccupied with physical suffering, worrying that a person who is dead might be scared or cold.

We also have to grasp the concepts of inevitability — that all living things die — and causality, why they die. Otherwise, a child may believe that we can be excluded from death, and reason that a person who dies must have been selected because they were bad — or because the child was bad.

Cora has almost reached the age, four, at which Schonfeld tells me children start to understand these concepts and become fearful of death. I’ll be tempted to reassure her, he says. I may want to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll always be here for you.” But she’ll know that’s not true.

“Sometimes you have to allow children to experience distress,” Schonfeld says, and comfort them as best we can.

I can’t tell Cora when she’ll go back to school. I’m struggling to imagine sending her into a world where pandemics come seemingly out of nowhere like a herd of wildebeest demolishing everything in their path. How can I navigate my child through something even I don’t understand?

There is no normal and it’s hard to pretend there is — and, apparently, I shouldn’t. If we don’t talk about what’s bothering us, Schonfeld says, our children will think it must be something they’re not supposed to ask about. We can’t fool our kids — they always know when something’s wrong.

The other evening, my mother’s back spasmed and she spent hours quietly panicking in our bedroom. We tried to distract Cora with dessert, but, picking up on my mother’s distress, she retreated to her own bed where she whimpered, “I’m sick.”

I ask Schonfeld how to explain to Cora that the pandemic has introduced unprecedented uncertainty into our lives that sometimes scares the grownups she loves. He advises me to focus on information that’s relevant to her without graphic detail.

As Cora and I color at the coffee table, I tell her: “There are lots of different kinds of germs. A new one, COVID-19, is making people sick. Most people get better, but some grownups can get very sick and some have died. That’s why we get upset sometimes.”

She adds a row of legs to the monster she’s drawing. I watch her for awhile, unsure if I should press ahead. I follow up with another recommendation from Schonfeld.

“Do you have any questions?” I ask.

Cora finally looks up at me, her face grave. I meet her eyes and steel myself for profound questions about life and death.

“Can I have a popsicle?” she asks.

I consider repeating the lesson to ensure that she understands.

Instead, I say, “Yes, baby, you can have a popsicle.”

Soon enough, she’ll learn that all things that live must also die, and I won’t speed that realization along. The world is already doing its best to force the issue. Cora will come to this understanding on her own, as she discovered that I exist beyond her sight, as she uttered her first words, as she learned to run. As she awakens to life and death and everything in between, all I can do is hold her close through the sad parts.

*name changed for privacy

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