When do children develop a sense of their own mortality?
August 27, 2009 4:11 PM   Subscribe

At what age does a child realize his or her mortality?

I have a very good friend who is doing research for some writing and asked me about this.

My first reaction was that it depends on how they are exposed to death - if at all.
I have always had a sense of being finite, but chalk it up to having been to a number of funerals and having seen a number of family members in their last moments as a child. It always felt very real and plain-as-day to me. Other friends are horrified at my experience in ways I never was.

So... Are there any academic papers, links, books, or writings that address this? I would like to pass them on to her and read them myself.

I am looking for the whole range - from children who fall in the average range to extremes.
posted by Tchad to Science & Nature (43 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Anecdotal experiences are welcome as well, btw.
posted by Tchad at 4:25 PM on August 27, 2009

I knew about death from an early age, having lost plenty of aunts/cousins/friends. But I was brought up in a religious family and the afterlife was something to aspire to, actually. When I lost my religion in college I had to deal with my mortality in a whole new way. That was rough.

I haven't brought my children up with religion except in the abstract. My son took to the idea of heaven and we let him, saying it was okay for him to believe if he wanted to but that we didn't. They both had experience with death fairly early, with pets and family members passing away when the kids were quite young, and several times throughout their young childhoods. My son had his existential crisis at about age 6 or 7, coming downstairs after being put to bed, crying, saying, "But what if this is it? What if there's no heaven?" After a few months of thinking about it and talking about it, he decided that he just doesn't know and he's okay with not knowing.

My daughter, currently 9, has never come to us with questions of mortality. She might think about it but she hasn't talked about it with us.
posted by cooker girl at 4:50 PM on August 27, 2009

Andecdotal experience: Last year, one of our barn cats was struck and killed by a car. We had to bury him immediately, and I was faced with a) lying to our 5-plus-year-old, or b) telling him the truth, right then. I walked back into the house and said "Fred was hit by a car and he's dead. This makes me very, very sad. Would you like to come help Daddy and me bury him?" Boy MonkeyToes patted Fred's covered body right before we covered it up and said "Fred, you were a good cat." For the next few weeks, he asked things like "Will Fred stay dead forever?" "Is Fred still underground?" "Does God know that Fred is dead?" "We won't see Fred again?"

When he was 5-and-a-half, he listened to the first three books of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" but got freaked out halfway through the third book--going to the underworld was too scary for him. He then asked a lot of questions about God, the afterlife and what happens to a body after it dies. More specifically: "Will I die?" "Will you die?" "If I died, would you be sad?" "WHEN will I die? Will I die soon?"

Then again, he's always been a little on the morbid side. Not Pugsley Addams morbid or anything, but, um, yes, definitely aware of death and a few of the questions surrounding it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:50 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

So... Are there any academic papers ... that address this?


Found by googling [children concept mortality] -- I'm sure you could find more.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:53 PM on August 27, 2009

For a lot of people, it happens in their mid-20's. I'm quite serious. The "Teenage boy who thinks he's immortal" is a stereotype because there really are a lot of guys that age who don't appreciate that it's possible for them to die, except in a very distant academic sense.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:01 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I came to grips with the harsh reality of death when I was about five years old. I was eavesdropping on a random PBS show about the "Life of the Sun" or something similar - well it was revealed that not only is the sun going to burn out one day, but when it does, we better all watch out, because life everywhere is over. Including flowers. And kittens. And me and my parents. I, of course, failed to hear the "ten billion years from now" and immediately began having nightmares about the end of the world and the death and destruction of EVERYTHING.

It was pretty awful, but I became aware of the mortality of myself, my family, and my kittens, at age five.
posted by banannafish at 5:08 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chocolate Pickle's probably partly right. I remember grasping the concept of death when I was about 7, in that I understood that people I loved could die, and I did a lot of questioning about God and the afterlife, but only recently (I'm 22) did I start to viscerally understand that the rules of aging and death apply to me, too.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:09 PM on August 27, 2009

My son's almost four and is certainly interested in the question of when his older relatives are going to die. This probably started at about three and a half. I'm pretty sure he understands that a long time from now he'll be old and then later he'll die; I don't think he has any conception that it's possible to die before getting old.
posted by escabeche at 5:11 PM on August 27, 2009

My son had his existential crisis at about age 6 or 7, coming downstairs after being put to bed, crying, saying, "But what if this is it? What if there's no heaven?"

I did exactly this, except I was 5. I didn't know anyone who had died at that point, although my grandmother was very sick - that may have had something to do with it. And then for years afterwards it didn't bother me, but for the last few years (since my early twenties, I guess) it has started to freak me out again, so I think Chocolate Pickle is also maybe onto something.
posted by naoko at 5:17 PM on August 27, 2009

When I did some training in helping grieving children, I was taught that most children don't understand that death is a permanent state until around the age of six. (There was research backing that, but I don't have it handy at the moment.) How much longer until they realize that they, too, will die, I don't know.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:18 PM on August 27, 2009

I think there's a lot of gradation between understanding the concept that you will die one day, and fully realizing that one day your body will be reduced to dust and you will cease to exist on this planet ever again, and that your consciousness will evaporate (depending on your views of afterlife.)

I know plenty of adults who offhandedly say things like "If I ever die" and "were I to die one day" as if it's an optional thing. If you asked them straight out they'd be all "Huh? Oh yeah, I'm totally aware I'm going to die, of course" but mentally and emotionally they haven't really wired that fact into their vision of the future.

I personally think that I won't fully grasp the significance of my own mortality until I am in a nursing home, aged, waiting around for death with nothing to distract me from it's inevitability.

(Not to be depressing or anything, but I've been visiting nursing homes a lot lately. The people I know there have NO illusions about their own mortality.)
posted by np312 at 5:18 PM on August 27, 2009

I think I understood the concept that I would die when I was quite young. Maybe 6 or younger. From about 15 to 25, death was a concept that happened to old people and OTHER young people doing stupid things, not this Gunn. If I had the same concept of death then as I have now, I know I either would have gone to a lot less Grateful Dead shows (or a lot more). From 25 to 35, I started getting responsibility and a family and then my concept of my mortality changed considerably. It was no longer just me but my family affected by my death. (I know this ignores my brothers and parents and uncles, etc, but that was how I viewed it. From 35 to 45 it changed even more. My kids now are starting to understand mortality. I still want to do all those stupid things I used to as a youth, but think better of them. I have shifted my risk reward profile. At 46, I had a surprise heart procedure to put in stents. I have for the last few years been very conscious of it. Egad, I am going to die one day! I have so much more to do and to give.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:30 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

A great book on the subject:

The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker
posted by Espoo2 at 5:35 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wrestled with the notion that I would die before I got to grade school. During the moments just before sleep, I would lie there and look at the night light's subdued light. I would desperately wish to be transformed into the wall, since inanimate things did not have to die. Being alive felt like I had stepped onto a bus I could not now get off; a one-way trip. I would tremble and call out for my mother and tell her I wished I was a wall, I was scared. She used to tell me I was too young to worry about such things, and I would reply, "But Mom, I am thinking about it". Then she would say, "Well, think about a puppy, then". This sort of explains a lot about American culture for me today as an adult.
posted by effluvia at 5:42 PM on August 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

I was a late bloomer on the subject, even though we had several pets that died, even though my father died when I was eight, even though my grandmother died when I was ten.

Really. I didn't truly think about my own death until I was 22 or so, thanks to my mother's brush with cancer, combined with a period of time when I was smoking too much pot, watching too much Six Feet Under, and listening to "I Will Follow You into the Dark" lots. Before then, death was something that happened to other people.

In a way, I guess it still is. I'm agnostic and don't think there's an afterlife--we experience the deaths of others but will never really have to process our own deaths. Honestly, I miss the days of not-really-thinking-about it, but once that door is opened, it's open, I guess.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:44 PM on August 27, 2009

I agree with those who are saying that mortality is understood gradually, in stages.

When I was a few months shy of 3 years old, my great grandmother died. I was quite sad about it, but I think my sadness was mostly due to the sadness of those around me. I have an incredibly vivid memory of staring at the stones in a parking lot while my parents loaded up my great grandmother's old love seat in to a moving van. The whole family was there, clearing out her apartment. The sadness was definitely not lost on me, but I don't think I ever thought about the fact that my great grandmother was never going to come back, ever. I don't recall being confused about what it means to die - and I wasn't brought up in a religious household, so I didn't have any confusion about heaven or the afterlife - but the weight of it, the forever-ness of it, just didn't really occur to me.

Then, when I was 5, my dog was run over by a car. By that age, I most definitely understood (perhaps simplistically, but nevertheless I understood) that my dog was gone forever, and I absolutely refused to see the dog's body. (I wasn't scared of the dead body; I happen to be a very sensitive person and I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of seeing my beloved dog dead. I reacted the same way when my grandmother died when I was 13.) I hid in my room with the door locked while my family buried the dog in the garden. I refused to even walk by that place in the garden for YEARS.

Since then, my understanding has evolved in what might seem like less drastic ways, but actually, I think the smaller realisations about mortality are often the most starting. Most recently (within the last year or two), I've been aware to a much greater degree of my tendency to assume that the people I'm close to will not die in car crashes, will not get early-onset Alzheimer's, will not get cancer at a very young age, will not get incurable neurological diseases, etc. I make a conscious effort to remind myself that such assumptions are groundless. Not out of a desire to be grim or depressed, but out of a desire to appreciate what I have now. As others have said, I find that there is a huge difference between acknowledging intellectually that everybody dies and feeling, or really knowing, or finally accepting the fact that the people you love could die at almost any minute. Such realisations, I've found, are often associated with significant changes in how one chooses to live.
posted by Cygnet at 5:50 PM on August 27, 2009

I grew up on a farm, so death was an accepted, inevitable part of my life for as long as I can remember (and I remember being upset about it too!).

I was in childcare for five years (carer, not ward), and will say without hesitant, kids are the most morbid little bastards, going. They are - almost invariably - literally fascinated by death in all its manifestations. It's creepy, their little, betwitched faces as they go through some ritual/game/fake funeral rite with the dead cricket/mouse/pigeon or whatever that they've found.
posted by smoke at 5:58 PM on August 27, 2009

It hit me, I mean really hit me, on or soon after my 10th birthday. Before that, it was still kind of abstract.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:04 PM on August 27, 2009

My experience was similar to bannanafish's. I read a lot of things when I was four and watched a lot of PBS and Discovery Channel with my parents. My dad watched a program with me, I think something with Stephen Hawking that, either way, was in the same vein of A Brief History of Time, and I realized that the entire universe could end and we'd all be dead, including me and everyone else. Then I realized the universe would not end soon, it would happen way after we were all dead... but we'd be dead, we could die and would die. For a while -- it might have been a few days, or a week, or a month or more, I don't know -- I would sit down with my dad's copy of A Brief History of Time (my dad bought it as soon as it came out) and a dictionary and try to figure out what it meant and if maybe someone had missed something and everyone would actually live forever. I was four, though, so of course that didn't go anywhere. When I couldn't figure it out I just took some solace in the idea of heaven, but wondered if heaven was contained within the universe or not.

I remember spending a lot of time this age crying in my room about the thought of my parents dying.

By the time my grandmother died when I was six, I was fully aware what death meant. I knew she was gone and we'd never see her again, and I didn't really have any questions to ask that weren't about the technical issues of funerals.
posted by Nattie at 6:31 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a lot depends on previous experience with death. A lot of kids have their first exposure when a family member or a pet dies, and that's when, in my experience, their questions start.

I only grew up with one grandparent. One died shortly after I was born, the one died just after my parents were married, and my father's father committed suicide when my father was six years old. I had friends with four grandparents, and asked at a pretty young age why I didn't have four grandparents. My parents told me, and what are, I suppose, the normal questions were asked - can I die, will I die soon, where do you go when you die, what does dying feel like?

My mother also began working in nursing homes when I was four. I was an early reader, and my mother had me going in to visit with some of the residents and reading and talking with them a few days a week. They mostly seemed to appreciate it, and over the next few years, I became close with several of them. When my first "friend" passed away, I was about 4 1/2 - I went to read to her, couldn't find her, and went to my mother to ask where she was. My mother told me very frankly that she died, and while it was sad, that she had lived a long life and wasn't in pain anymore. My early exposure to (lots of) death isn't particularly common, though.
posted by honeybee413 at 6:33 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was 11 when I first realized the full implications of Newton's laws meant that, no matter what medical technology we might come up with before I died, nothing could stop the end of the universe, which meant that someday I would indeed die.
posted by nomisxid at 6:43 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I understood death as a kind of finality (without all the religious/spiritual) when both of my grandfathers died. I was 4 at the time of both. Before that, I remember wondering why I had grandfathers, but no grandmothers (both had died when my parents were young). I think I sort of understood what "being dead" meant then, but definitely not the same starkness of seeing the body of one of my grandfathers. Around that time, we also had some bunnies in the backyard. One day, we went out to check on them, we learned that one of them ate the other little bunnies. The fact that they were one living, and now no more, was starkly evident.

But I think I developed a sense of my own mortality around 9-10 when my mom got cancer, and passed away not long after. I think this was when I knew that death wasn't just reserved for the old, or the non-human, but that we all teeter on a kind of fragility of "now you're here" and "now you're not." I'm actually quite glad that I was exposed to "death" at a relatively early age. I don't think it's "horrifying," but I feel like I've surrendered to it's inevitably, and don't fear it at all. Pain on the other hand...
posted by raztaj at 6:51 PM on August 27, 2009

I was around when my little brother, 10, realized he would die someday. He cried and cried, and I didn't know what to do for him since there are times when it still makes me sad.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 6:52 PM on August 27, 2009

Ironically, last night my daughter started crying at the dinner table. I asked her what was going on, and she very tearfully replied, "I don't want to die!" So, we talked about how everyone dies eventually, but that if we want to live as long as her grandparents, we all have to take care of ourselves, eat right, exercise, etc.

She's six, for a reference point. Not that I think she has a very developed sense of mortality, but the finality of death is weighing a bit heavier at the moment.
posted by liquado at 6:56 PM on August 27, 2009

I don't remember when I first realized I would die, but I've known from a young age; when I was 3 or 4 I would try to "experience" being dead by lying on my bed with my eyes closed, trying not to think about anything. But it was an abstract understanding of death, since getting old and dying was so far away from me then. Now in my twenties and entering adult life, I'm coming to terms with the fact that time is passing and my turn too will come, and it's more concrete and a hell of a lot scarier.
posted by moutonoir at 7:16 PM on August 27, 2009

I think I was a small child when I realized that I would die -- somewhere around six or eight. My brother laughed and made fun of me, so I was left kind of wondering why I was the only one who seemed scared of it.

For some reason I didn't really think about it again until I turned 21. I was lying in bed on my birthday, and then I realized that that was the last age marker that I had been looking forward to, and that some day I would die.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:39 PM on August 27, 2009

I remember hanging out with a precocious 4-year-old and his mom, and he asked her, seemingly without particular emotion, when he would die. It was pretty fascinating.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:47 PM on August 27, 2009

When I was three my mother told me not to eat some berries in the garden because they were poisonous. I went over and looked at them while my mother watched from the kitchen, and then I came back to the house to ask some more questions.

Baby Holloway: what would happen if I ate them?
Mum Holloway: You'd die. Do you know what that means?
Baby Holloway: does that mean I'd never see you again?
Mum Holloway: Yes.

And then, I'm told, I gave her a hug and avoided the berry bush in the future by giving it about 5 metres leeway.
posted by holloway at 8:01 PM on August 27, 2009

I don't remember my age, but I think I must've been 6-7 when the idea of my own mortality kicked in, and spent many sleepless nights trying to make sense of it. I've mostly accepted it, but to this day, there are moments when the full impact of "someday, I will cease" punches me in the gut and I lie awake until I can distract myself.
posted by Alterscape at 8:24 PM on August 27, 2009

I grew up next to a primary nuclear target during the late Cold War, so there was always a collective sense of potentially-imminent death. I wasn't out of elementary school before I knew about blast radius' and fallout and the bad kind of rain, not to mention the few-times-per-year jumping under the desks practice (also for earthquakes). Personal mortality happened sometime in my 30s through my father's long illness, though I was quite a thrill-seeker in my teens and 20s so that may have just been delayed-onset.
posted by rhizome at 9:17 PM on August 27, 2009

If by "develop a sense" you mean really digest it, rather than acknowledge the fact that everybody dies, then it was just after I turned 9, and I couldn't sleep for what I now remember as weeks. First I realized that my parents would die, and then that I would.
posted by Beardman at 9:17 PM on August 27, 2009

first genuine "sense" of eternity: age 4.

realization of my mortality: age 12, almost 13 (pretty much co-incident with puberty)
posted by philip-random at 9:53 PM on August 27, 2009

I was four. I had just finished watching All Dogs Go to Heaven, and asked my mom about death and heaven. I wasn't raised with any religion, so I never had the comfort, I guess, of religious ideas of an afterlife. I remember being very frightened. The idea of heaven didn't make sense to me so I was terrified of what would happen after dying. All I understood was the finality of it. Then, once I was in elementary school, I would play a "game" when I went to sleep, where I would close my eyes and try to imagine what being dead and not existing or feeling would be like. I scared the crap out of myself on many a night, to the point of needing to get up and walk around the house until I calmed down.

It's interesting that this question came up now. A good friend's mother died last month, very suddenly, and it's added a new layer to my sense of mortality that I hadn't really spent too much time thinking about. She was admitted to the hospital and died two weeks later before the doctors could even really figure out what was wrong. And while I always accepted abstractly that I and everyone I care about will die someday, now I've been grappling with accepting the utter fragility of it all. It could really be at any moment, but accepting that reality is a process I haven't fully worked myself out of yet.
posted by Shesthefastest at 9:54 PM on August 27, 2009

The summer I turned 8 years old is when I had my first existential crisis regarding the idea of death--lots of staying up past my bedtime asking my dad about whether there's an afterlife, whether everything had to end, whether death would hurt when it came. Poor guy, he tried his best to answer these questions, but nothing he said would console me.

My parents were definitely concerned about my new fixation on death, and even had me see a psychologist for a few sessions. I guess what worried them so much is that they couldn't figure out what had triggered this. I didn't have any pets that died, and none of my grandparents or other close relatives died till I was in high school--yet all of a sudden, I was brooding about death every night. But judging by how many other respondents have reported similar experiences, maybe this is s a natural thing that a lot of people experience somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10--triggered by something internal in our development, rather than external factors.
posted by clair-de-lune at 10:59 PM on August 27, 2009

I don't think I ever really considered my own mortality until my grandfather passed away, and I was 20 at that time. Before that, I certainly knew what death was, but had never considered what it meant or that could actually happen to me or the people I loved.
posted by Xany at 12:21 AM on August 28, 2009

Early 20s.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:57 AM on August 28, 2009

Im 23 and still dont really feel that 'aging' 'dying' thing at all. FYI I have never been to a funeral and no one close to me has ever died.
posted by Neonshock at 5:31 AM on August 28, 2009

I was six and an avid reader. My newest thing was to read Reader's Digest and they had a regular article called "Drama In Real Life" about people in extreme danger or getting their life saved or whatever. This article was about a huge fire that engulfed a home on Easter Sunday and killed this family's two little girls, ages three and six. It made a big deal about how excited they were about their Easter baskets, which I could relate to at the time.

I realized then that I WAS THE SAME AGE AS THE GIRL WHO DIED IN THE FIRE and therefore KIDS WHO ARE SIX, INCLUDING ME, COULD DIE IN A FIRE OR SOME OTHER ACCIDENT and that totally blew my six-year-old mind.

I wasn't really obsessed with the fact that I would someday die...I was more worried about the "real life" dangers I hadn't been aware of before then: fires, tornadoes, carbon monoxide, etc. I realized life was very fragile and I became preoccupied with how to protect it. I made my dad check the smoke detector, that kind of stuff.

Before that, I was oblivious, absolutely. My mom reports that when I was about four and the Gulf War (1) began, I walked by the TV news while my parents were engrossed in it and casually remarked, "YAAY, dead people!" They were horrified at the monster they had seemingly created.
posted by castlebravo at 6:57 AM on August 28, 2009

I think somewhere around 5-7. I actually had almost the same experience as banannafish--I read in The Reader's Digest Book of Facts that the sun would expand and engulf the inner planets in 5 billion years. I already knew about death (my grandfather had died when I was 1, so I had asked why I was missing a grandfather), but I'm pretty sure that's when I realized that it applied to me, too. It wasn't so much "the sun is going to engulf me in 5 billion years", but more like "wow, these people really don't seem concerned about the sun exploding--I guess they're pretty sure we'll all be dead by then."

As for Chocolate Pickle's expanded sense of mortality, i.e. actually being consciously aware of danger in the world around you, I'd say somewhere around 14-16.
posted by equalpants at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2009

I was 5 or 6. I was really pissed off about it for a week.
posted by spaltavian at 10:40 AM on August 28, 2009

When I was nine, my nan died. She was waked for two days. By the time they closed the casket for the funeral, I'd had plenty of time to view the body and think, "That's not my Nan in there anymore." It blew my mind. Just gone.

After the staunch Roman Catholic funeral, family and friends came back to our house and ate and drank and laughed and sang late into the night, all in honour of Nan. As a kid, I remember feeling kind of relieved that something of you remained here after you died, in other people.

castlebravo, we also had Reader's Digest on the back of the toilet to remind you that everyday people often encounter life-threatening situations. RD and National Geographic also introduced me to the concept of space, which just added another dimension. ("But if god lives in the clouds and heaven is in the sky then why is it just black nothingness out there? Where do I go when I die? And why is church so boring?")

My earliest memory of death would have to be Mr. Hooper. I was four.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:28 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was in grade 1 or 2 when I read that the sun would eventually supernova and destroy the Earth with it. Reincarnation sounded stupid after knowing this.

I imagined my death would be me in a coffin with (permanent) sleep paralysis. I wasn't really scared of it. It just felt normal to me.
posted by jayne at 8:41 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I hope this helps my friend round out her writing and make it more vivid.

I really appreciate all of the stories and tips.
posted by Tchad at 3:57 PM on September 3, 2009

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