Death education is considered an awkward topic to discuss in quite a number of ways. What makes it even worse is when it comes to explaining it to children. Over the years, parents have found it hard to discuss the topic and have largely resorted to lying or completely avoiding the topic.
As a result, children have had to deal with death later on in their lives in different ways without any prior knowledge on the topic. Studies have shown that introduction of the topic at an early age has less stressful effects on individuals as they more familiar with the topic and can comprehend the basic truths about life and the effects of death or loss of a loved one. Various authors have tried to cover this topic and a large contribution has been made by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
Lifetimes: “The beautiful way to explain death to children” is a children’s book that is suitable for all ages and is well illustrated and simply explains the life cycle of all living things. It clearly describes life outlining its beginning, living in between and ultimately its end.
As a result, the book is very beneficial to both parents and children in its attempt to explain the reality of death in a straightforward way. The book considers the sensitivity and complexity of this topic and gives attention to children in an attempt to make them understand death, dying and bereavement (Worden, 2008).
For a long time in society, this topic has largely been on the list of ones to avoid when it comes to explaining the concept of death to children. Parents are now able to easily explain death to their children thanks to this book. In all ways, it is definitely a good read for children of all ages as it is beneficial toward a child’s development towards coping with death and loss in the future.
Erik Erickson’s autonomy versus doubt
Autonomy versus doubt is the second stage in Erik Erickson’s stages of psychological development. The stage involves children aged between 18 months and two or three years. This age group is ideally an important part of the age group covered in the book which mostly pertains to children. According to Erickson, it is at this stage when children begin to seek a sense of self -worth. Children learn to control their bodies and master skills such as talking, walking and even feeding themselves. It is an opportunity to build self esteem and autonomy from the parents.
If the parents are too harsh, overprotective or demanding, then the child may be affected in a negative way and experience extreme doubt and shame. The sense of autonomy fostered in the child and maintained as they grow plays a huge role in the child’s perspective of future life in general.
Erickson believed that the childhood of an individual is a very important factor in their personality development. It is, therefore, important for a child to understand about death and dying from a very early stage as it is essential towards their future development.
Piaget’s pre-operational stage theory
Piaget, on the other hand, also promoted a stage approach to development. He stated that children under three years experience life through direct experience. They can tell the emotional distress of their parents or that something wrong has happened. In reality, even children who have not yet learnt how to speak can fell the absence of a loved one (Moos, 1989).
Similarly, Piaget also considered the same age group as that one which the book is written for. The topic of death and dying, from Piaget’s perspective, is essential to a child and that they are born with the innate ability to feel the emotion and effects of death around them.
However, Piaget’s main emphasis is that children mostly learn about death from personal occurrences in their lives. Worden (2008) stated:
The child’s mind is not a miniature model of the adult’s mind and theorized the idea that the child’s mind develops by organizing and interpreting information. He believed that infants aged below three years old (the pre-operational stage) are unable to perform simple logical operations and are egocentric but can realize the emotion and absence of a dear one (p. 59).
The four dimensions of death education
The cognitive dimension of death deals with the provision of factual information about death and its experiences and tries to help us understand those experiences (Worden, 2008). Another topic that is also covered in this area is suicide. For a very long time, the topic of death has been incorporated into different civilizations and cultures.
Consequently, death education has uncovered new ways of organizing and interpreting death patterns. This dimension of death is slightly beyond the younger group for which the book was written. It, however, applies to older children such as teenagers who are able to comprehend and apply statistical findings to everyday life.
The effective dimension of death deals with emotions, attitudes and feelings towards death and bereavement (Kastenbaum, 1998). Death education tries to equip those who have not experienced death with the complexities and depth of emotions that come after the loss of a dear one. In simple terms, death education is used as a tool to help one who has not experienced death to understand the intensity and reality of the matter.
As this deals with knowledge acquired mainly from the experience and not personally, the effective dimension of education in the field of death may not work for children in this category. Part reason for this is that children of that particular age may find it difficult to put themselves in other people’s shoes especially when it comes to death. The child may understand the concept of death but not realize the depth of emotion and grief that are followed by death (Kastenbaum, 1998).
Knowledge and information about how people behave in death related situations is covered in the behavioral dimension of death education. The age group covered by Mellonie and Ingpen are victims of the findings related to this dimension. It is found that most people or society in the whole tend to pull back from the death topic and bereavement. In fact, most people have no idea what to do when faced with the death of a loved one.
This dimension of education offers advice on how to understand and deal with such persons. The bereaved should not be left to deal with the death alone; the presence of a caring person to listen to the bereaved and give them company is what is required in such situations. For that reason, death education in this dimension may be sort of abstract for children of the age group for which the book was intended.
Death education, in its valuational dimension portrays the essence and basic facts about life and death. As long as life exists, so will its alternate, death. The concept of death as a part of human life is the main emphasis in this dimension. Children of all ages should be made aware of the consequences and causes of death as this it is a common element of life as we live.
This, in turn, engraves reality into the child’s mind, hence, enabling them to deal and cope effectively with future losses and misfortunes which are ordinary in life. The targeted individuals of this book can easily benefit from death education in this field in different capacities according to their developmental stage and understanding.
Culture, ethnicity and socio-economic community
The book (Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children) is very essential as it is based on an inevitable part of human existence. It is like a course for both children and parents on death and dying and has in mind the goal of enabling children to understand the details and, in different ways, how to deal with death, dying and bereavement (Rando, 2000).
Death is a topic that is largely avoided by most cultures and ethnic groups if not all. An important observation to keenly note is that the diverse cultures, ethnic clusters and socio-economic communities are conforming to the same preferences, acts and beliefs. An example of this is the globalization of economic blocks around the world and similarity of social patterns.
With the evolution of communication patterns and transportation, different ethnic entities are now able to interact with ease resulting in unification of various practices such as similar education and political systems. Based on this development, it is right to assume that the book would attract the global community irrespective of their cultural or socio-economic differences.
We realize that the book covers a topic that is indifferent in all cultural and socio-economic divides. Whether it is Asia, Europe, America, Africa or any other continent, the issue of death is present. The book can be used all over the world to guide both children and parents in their understanding of death and how to communicate or deal with the issue.
Key elements in the death related concepts that relate to the book
One of the key elements of death as a phenomenon that is covered in this book is that it is irreversible and separates us from our loved ones forever. It is the termination of the physical form of existence and the book clearly outlines the resultant effect of death in a manner that children can understand at a young age.
Another key element is that understanding of death comes in stages and as a child goes through the different developmental stages, so does their understanding of death (Rando, 2000). In this respect, the book covers the understanding of death from an early stage right through the stage where they have great knowledge on the topic.
Children have to know the basis or concept behind the situation they are in when it comes to death. For instance, in a scenario where a child has lost a sibling, by knowing what has happened around him/her, one may decide how to behave or tolerate certain behavior from people around them.
In true essence, this is the main ideology of the book as it tries to stoop lower to a child’s level of understanding and communicate about death (Doka, 1989). Children are, thus, more capable of handling death, terminal diseases and bereavement by virtue of the knowledge gained from the book.
Helping a bereaved or grieving child cope with death
The book takes into consideration that the child may be aware of the emotional distress around them or the absence of a loved one irrespective of whether they fully understand exactly what has happened. Moreover, the book takes into account the level of understanding of the child.
Clearly laid out diagrams of animals and living things enable a child of young age to easily understand the concept of death. Infants under two years may not understand the death of a loved one but their other behaviors may be affected by a change in routine or grief of other members of the family.
Children aged between three and five have a very poor sense of time and this may mislead them to imagine that death is reversible. At this stage, it is very common for kids to have misconceptions or misunderstandings about death. A common sign is by constantly asking of questions about death or expressing worries that someone close to them may die.
From about the age of six to twelve, the child has a clear understanding of death. The concept of permanency of death is clear to the child. However, questions may be on what happens to the body after death. It is at this age that the book begins to give clear meaning to the reality of death and its inevitability being living beings (Corr, Nabe, & Corr, 2003).
Finally, teenagers understand death more like adults but may be lacking in the ability to cope with death. The death of a close relative or friend may leave them confused as they are still struggling to find their own identity. Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen provide a solution to this in their book by clearly outlining the fact of the beginning and end of life.
The book does not underestimate the child’s capacity to understand not only death but many other factors too (Doka, 1989). Therefore, it is important to realize that children can cope with what they know. It is with this mindset that an open and clear channel of communication between a parent/family and an ill or dying patient is established (Worden, 2001).
Depending on the age and developmental maturity of the child, he/she may not understand fully what they are facing (Kastenbaum, 1998). As a child begins to comprehend the severity of the illness, it is crucial and important to explain to the child that he/she will likely die in a manner or language that one understands. In so doing, the child learns to live in joy and has less worries about what will happen later if they were clouded from reality.
The book is the simplest resource when it comes to such a situation. Living is defined as being in the middle of the beginning and end of life. This will help the child who understands the concept of death by shielding one from lies about the state of their health getting better while in real sense the child notices the state of their health deteriorating.
In a synopsis, it can be firmly stated that the book has gone a step further to change the outdated mindset of shying from the topic of death when explaining to children. More and more parents and children are benefiting largely from the work of Mellonie and Ingpen to contribute to a new revolution in dealing with the topic.
Corr, C. A., Nabe, C., & Corr, D. M. (2003). Death and dying, life and living. Stamford: Wadsworth.
Doka, K. (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lanharn: Lexington Books.
Kastenbaum, R. (1998). Death, society, and human experience. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Moos, R. H. (1989). Coping with physical illness: New perspectives. Berlin: Springer.
Rando, T. A. (2000). Clinical dimensions of anticipatory mourning: Theory and practice in working with the dying, their loved ones, and their caregivers. Champaign: Research Press.
Worden, J. W. (2001). Children and grief: When a parent dies. New York: Guilford Press.
Worden, J. W. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Berlin: Springer Publishing Company.