Children’s Fascination with Death

I am planning to write a post on another subject very soon. It is taking me longer than I’d like because at the moment I am preparing to give a lecture on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which is a very hard book to distill into an hour long talk.

Anyway, my husband and I spent a half hour in our 6 yo grandson’s kindergarten class last Friday trying to impart some information about the brain. We brought a plastic model of the brain that we could split into two parts, like the two hemispheres of the brain, and we brought the wires that are used to capture the electrical impulses of the brain on an EEG. We thought we’d have a discussion of how our bodies, and especially our brains, operate by the use of electricity contained in our brain and nerves.

They had heard from other parents/grandparents about the heart and circulatory system, and remembered a huge amount about that.

My husband, the neurologist, told them that the brain controls everything in the body. After a series of questions about whether the brain controls our blood, and our fingers, and legs, and…their teacher said everything means everything. What happened next, however, just stunned us. First one 5 yo asked what caused his grandmother’s face to look so crooked as he scrunched up his face to mimic hers. My husband did his best to explain in a very basic way what might have happened to her. But then several kids wanted to know if it’s the brain that stops when we die.

We were bombarded with questions about death for the rest of our stay to the point that I wondered whether we could talk about a less morbid topic, like how fast the brain processes sensations like touch, or whatever. The teacher rescued us by saying time was up, but I came away impressed with how fixated on death these kids were. Next I thought about the brief scene during the school trip in S7 in which Barney keeps asking whether his classmate is going to die.

I know that kids come face to face with death when a pet dies, or when they see a dead animal on the road, or when a family member dies, but I was not expecting the deep fascination with death I encountered in that classroom. Although Barney’s constant return to the question of whether his classmate is dead, or will die, was probably nothing more than another oddball part of the scene that has ME once again pushing little kids around while also once again saving someone’s life, it also exemplifies the preoccupation with death that children have. Barney and his classmates are much older than my grandson and his classmates, but that preoccupation clearly starts early in some cases.

It turned out that there was a death in one of the children’s family that precipitated their questions in the kindergarten class, but it was quite an eye opener for us. Kids say the darnedest things, as Art Linkletter once remarked.

Originally posted 2016-02-21 09:59:00.

10 thoughts on “Children’s Fascination with Death

  1. Linda D.

    I never thought much about kid’s curiosity about death with my own kids who were raised in a Christian home and attended Christian camps etc. We never shied away from the topic of death and heaven and things like that. But, when my father died, I found it really hard to explain it. Of course, they understood that Grandpa was sick and his heart gave out and that he could not stay with us anymore. But trying to explain heaven was another thing entirely. I realized, I didn’t even really know what it would be like. Yes, in my belief system, he went to be with Jesus. But try to explain to a child how he got to heaven or what it is like there or suggesting what he would look like in heaven and answering their questions about whether he’d meet friends and relatives and our dogs that went before him – NOT so easy! I think I sounded really crazy, trying to explain it! That’s when I began to realize, I really didn’t have any good answers. There are so many thoughts about heaven – about seeing bright light, floating above your body, being instantly young and illness free, and many more. Libraries have whole sections on death and dying. I have always found it interesting that non believers, near the hour of their death, often want to see a priest or minister. Could it be that the idea of heaven is a comfort when someone is dying – because they have no other point of reference? Death and dying is such a HUGE thing that it does not surprise me that kids are curious and full of questions. They just do not have the piece about what happens between life and death and yet they witness funerals and burials and grief and must be curious but probably think it is a taboo subject. I think Barney was one of those kids – he did not want Jessie to die but he certainly made the connection between her illness and the possibility that she could pass away.

  2. Post author

    Your thoughts on death and dying and children bring up so many aspects about the subject. Our experience was an eye opener because no one in the room was actually in extremis yet the kids were still asking a lot about what happens when we die. We kept the conversation on the brain, but even those questions were challenging.

    I don’t know what they had in mind when Barney dwells on whether Jessie is going to die. In that case it was probably more the annoyance factor and perhaps knowing a child who had asked a lot of the same questions. Jessie and the other kids were scared by Barney’s focus on death, and his mention of death was putting ME on the spot and of great concern to Louisa. It also made her decision to accompany him to the hospital more likely. Then the doctor at the ER was alarmed and ME had to reassure him and Jessie’s father. It made everything more dramatic and urgent.

  3. Post author

    Another thing I should have mentioned is that the idea of whether someone is going to die became a recurring one throughout S7. As such it, too, became somewhat farcical. Is Jessie going to die, is Ellie going to die, is Mrs. Cronk going to die, is Mr. Winton going to die, is Buddy going to die?? No, no, no, no, and no. ME to the rescue every time AND Louisa crumbles a little each time as well. It’s humorous that each time Martin saves a life he also gives Louisa a reason to be more attracted to him. The only time it doesn’t work so well is when he saves her life at the end of S6. Curious, heh?

  4. Santa Traugott

    And not to forget the immortal line as they were driving home from the hospital in S5,E1 “You could die, and they’d get along without you.”

    And of course, the gallows humor in S6 (?) of the two elderly ladies who’d tatooed themselves “Do Not Resuscitate.” (My son on the ICU unit says that his co-workers often jest about doing just that.)

    There’s a theme for Kate’s page (PortwennOnline) : how many deaths? how many deaths narrowly averted?

  5. Post author

    I get a kick out of the tattoo also because it might take that to have the doctors listen to your wishes sometimes. It’s also like how they mark which eye, leg or arm they’re about to operate on just to make sure they don’t make a mistake. It’s supposed to be comforting, but it can be nerve wracking. How many times do we have to go over which body part is the target?

    That remark about no one missing Louisa if she died definitely got a laugh out of me. How often do we have to remind people that the world goes on with or without them? It’s harsh but true. If he had said that to her under other circumstances Louisa would probably have made a snappier reply. He got her at a weak moment.

    I haven’t seen the section you mention on Kate’s site. I think she was absolutely right to tally those.

  6. Carol

    Karen, I’ve been meaning to comment on this post. Sorry I’m late. Two comments. I believe that a large part of the reason children today seem to have so many questions about death is that, in general, we are so far removed from our agricultural roots. Children growing up on a farm are taught life/death from a very young age as they watch farm animals People would answer children’s questions of increasing complexity as a normal part of the daily experience. My husband and I noted this difference when we lived in France. As Americans, we tend to think of Paris and cities when we think of France. But from the air, one can truly see that France is still very rural. It is a patchwork of green and brown. Beautiful. And many of its people, even if they don’t live on a farm themselves, still have some familial connection, and so the children are still faced with the life cycle much more often.

    One striking example of this was when Edouard Michelin met an untimely end in a boating accident. The Michelins are, of course, much like the Kennedys in the US. When M. Michelin died, there was a fairly quick acceptance, rather than the long drawn-out investigation which would have likely taken place in the US. People accepted it even as they mourned. And as an ex-pat family who mourned as well, I can tell you that it made a great difference to us that the celebration of life and embrace of mourning happened without being needlessly put off by some investigation that would have only found that it was a tragic accident. Both he and the boat’s captain were drowned and the boat sank. There was a brief inquiry, and the matter settled.

    The other comment is related to Linda D’s comment above. In general, children are not around their extended families as often as they once were. I know that my own two children, due to my hubby’s job, live several hours from their grandparents. We all go to visit as much as possible but when my father died in 2003 and my mother in 2013, their day-to-day lives weren’t really affected. Flash back to mine and my hubby’s childhoods. We both lived extremely close to our grandparents, and their deaths signaled vast changes in our lives. Not as much change, not as much discussion.

    Having been involved in Christian Education both as a professional and a lay person for thirty plus years now, I know that living apart from extended family has another impact as well. The questions that Linda refers to above which she began to ask herself, would have likely been answered by grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, who were older and had already come to strong conclusions about these questions. They would likely have been the help to Linda’s generation in coming to their own conclusions and thus beginning these conversations with their children. It never fails to amaze me how children can converse in Sunday School about death, even Jesus’ cruel death, with a trust and faith seemingly beyond their years, as long as they are presented with the information in age-appropriate ways and times, and not in a fear or guilt-based environment.

    And what does this have to do with DM? I thought Barney’s continuous comments in the episode were very humorous. And illustrative of my first point. As we know from the children’s visit to Joan’s farm during series 4, even the children of Portwenn are far removed from agriculture. Thus, questions.

    Whew! That’s all.

  7. Post author

    Thanks for all of the above Carol. Your view of what could have been going on is very thoughtful. I definitely consider Barney’s recurrent questions as meant to be funny, but, as with a lot of comedy, there was so much truth in them too. It is striking that the kids in Portwenn might be unfamiliar with farm animals, but the visit to Joan’s farm and the other one to see and hear about birds do seem to make that point. Of course, most elementary schools include trips to various animal sanctuaries or visits from them to the school. Kids like animals. Some of the young people on this show are too close to the farm, e.g. Ellie and the pigs in S7. Having been to Port Isaac, I can say there are loads of sheep around there and a lot of cows as well. It would be likely the kids would see those animals regularly.

    Most of us live farther away from our children and grandchildren than we would like, and it is a shame. Hopefully we can still have a close relationship with them. I know I stay in touch through Facetime and as many visits as possible. We all have pets and those will certainly lead to having to deal with death at some point. Kids have found a way to handle those events for as long as we can remember. There’s not much change there.

  8. mmarshall

    On the topic of death, we also have the whole episode “The Departed” in S4 dealing a belief in a life after death and the possibility of interaction with the dead. In the same episode young Theo Wenn has a serious illness and perhaps brush with death as ME had to save him from choking on a spitball. ME even remarks to the little brat, “I just saved your life! … You’d have been dead!”

    As for the recurrent theme of death in S7, perhaps it reflects the viewers opinions on whether the series should “die” now or not!

  9. Post author

    Theo is one of the many whose lives have been saved by the remarkable skills of Martin Ellingham. But, he couldn’t save everybody, and Jim Selkirk dies sitting next to him on the train. Maybe Jim is haunting Martin as much as he’s visiting with his wife. Although Jim’s wife is eventually found to have Lyme disease, hallucinations are not usually associated with that disease. So that doesn’t explain why she keeps hearing Jim talking to her. It must be that her grief has brought on these auditory hallucinations. Interesting, and not necessarily funny, huh?

    I guess the show will go on whether we agree or not! That may mean the death of some characters and maybe of me!!

  10. mmarshall

    I believe the ending of this episode when the gate inexplicably opens for the exiting Doc is supposed to point to the accuracy of Mrs. Selkirk actually seeing her deceased husband, instead of Lyme’s disease being the cause of her hallucinations. I think this is an example of the “folk wisdom” of the locals often bearing more wisdom than the advice of professionals, even the Doc in this case. The local villagers who are church-goers would probably have held the common Christian belief in the ministering of beings from the Unseen World, as the BIble describes, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister…” (Heb 1:14). In this case, Mrs. Selkirk’s insistence in this proves more useful to her in diagnosing her Lyme’s disease.

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