Development of death concepts in early childhood

The purpose of this study was to explore the death concepts of children ages 3-0 to 6-11 years in terms of the following components: realization, separation, immobility, irrevocability, causality, dysfunctionality, universality, insensitivity and appearance. A questionnaire, developed to facilitate objectivity in scoring, was administered orally and individually to 66 children (35 girls and 31 boys) attending an American Lutheran Preschool/Kindergarten and Day Care Center in Van Nuys, California. The sample included children of various racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Fifteen children were bilingual. Children of working mothers comprised 84.8% of the sample and 33% of the subjects came from divorced homes. Inclusion in this study was limited to children who showed evidence of acquisition of the component realization by their ability to identify a photograph of a sleeping cat as “the dead kitty". Findings showed that the components universality and realization were: acquired by age 3; insensitivity and immobility by age 4; dysfunctionality and causality by age 5 and irrevocability by age 6. Acquisition was considered to be a mean component score of higher than 2.0. Ideation relating to the components appearance and separation was not sufficiently present in this sample to be considered acquired by age 7. Order of acquisition of components differed from that found by Kane (1975) and also the clustering effect proposed in her study was not so clearly evident in the present research. The hypothesis that children's understanding of the component factors of the death concept develop as a function of age and in clusters was confirmed. Implications of these findings were discussed with reference to explaining death to young children as well as the ages at which they are capable of grief and mourning.