A Child’s View on Dying

     Families are sometimes reluctant to talk about death, and so, children first learn through fantasy: books, movies, games, and television shows. Gareth Matthew’s research showed that young children define death as a sleep-like state that one awakes from. By elementary school, they begin to view death as irreversible, and by the time they’re 9-10 YO, their perception of death becomes more adult-like, a total cessation of mental and physical function.

    Historically, western fairy tales tied death to morality and faith. Bad people stayed dead, and good people are immortalized. Not shielding children gave them the resources to confront the fear of death. Children constructed an idea of the natural death as peaceful. And by the early 20th century, Peter Pan’s childish notion that dying would be “an awfully big adventure” seemed forebode the overarching zealotous sentiment of WWI that confronting death was heroic. Afterwards, death was essentially unmentionable in children’s books and cartoons until the 70’s. With the decline of childhood mortality, talking about death with children became just more and more taboo.

    The majority of death in present-day media for children is portrayed as violent deaths. Specifically, there’s an idea in games where players can cause death or die without much consequence, beyond waiting to respawn. And perhaps an intrinsic aspect of escapist fiction is constructing a “safe” world where death does not apply. But, many children usually can dissociate these ideals from true dying. They form an image of natural death as peaceful, perhaps surrounded by loved ones, and with hope in a kind of immortality. While one route can be disney-esque, portraying resurrection as possible with love, another route in children stories is by showing a character’s death as irreversible, authors further the message that their live’s were valuable and precious.  People must leave when their “job is done”. It’s tragic otherwise. But, they also learn they’re not alone in their grief. Life cut short are central to the narratives children routinely experience. In times of crisis, adults seem to revert back to these preserved childhood definitions. and perhaps discover solace even if they no longer believe in the fantasy.

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