It's common for children - and young children especially--to struggle with the comprehension of death. Many experts have pegged the age of six as a cutoff date; children younger than six tend to be unable to fully grasp death while children older than six tend to have a more mature understanding of the concept. But this is less a firm developmental stage than a loose guideline. Children mature at different stages, and what they grasp is also dependent upon their own experiences with death. Furthermore, the concept of death itself is less a realization that comes to someone than it is a series of stages of understanding, one that comes to a person bit by bit over the course of life. Even adults struggle with exactly what death is. Is it the loss of consciousness? Is there an afterlife? What happens when we die? Does our spirit go on? Where does it go? Do the dead "feel" or think? Do they become angry or sad that they died?
There are two basic categories of understanding death. The first regards mastering the most basic fundamentals:
Stage 1: Understanding that Death Is Permanent
Young children often ask when the deceased person is going to wake up again or come back to life. They may ask where mom or dad is at, and seem confused when you try to explain. They may continue to attribute biological needs to the deceased, and get upset over their body being buried or cremated. They fail to realize that death is a permanent thing; that once dead a person never becomes otherwise. It's irreversible, and death means that biological needs and desires no longer apply.
Some children will grasp these concepts quite easily; early enough that it's difficult to pinpoint an exact earliest date. The earliest measurements (3-years-old) reveal that some young children are able to understand this. The next stage is much more difficult, and continues to develop throughout life.
Stage 2: Understanding Concepts of Consciousness
Do dead people think? Do they feel? Does their spirit leave the body? Can they look down on us and see what we do? Do the dead know that we love them? Is there a heaven and hell? Reincarnation? Or is death simply the end of it all, a demise where consciousness ends to never return?
The second stage involves grappling with theories of consciousness, and this is the aspect that children have a much tougher time with. No surprises there...if you noticed, the questions on this list are ones that even adults have difficulties with. If you think concepts related to infinity or defining consciousness or awareness give you a headache; imagine what they do to children. Such intangible concepts are what pose the greatest challenges to children trying to understand death, and these abstract concepts are what young children are developmentally disadvantaged in understanding.
An experiment by Bering & Bjorklund (2004) provides insight into how children grapple with the concepts of death. They presented 200 3to 12-year-olds with a puppet show addressing death concepts. The kids saw a story about a baby mouse, which was out for an innocent stroll in the woods. "Just then," they were told, "he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby mouse is not alive anymore."
The children were then probed with questions to determine their understanding about death. They were asked questions such as "Does baby mouse still want to go home? Does he feel sick? Can he still smell the flowers?" Even the youngest children in the bunch--the preschoolers-tended to have a firm grasp that death meant biological cessation. For example, they knew that dead baby mouse didn't need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn't grow into an adult mouse. In fact, 85% of the youngest kids even realized that his brain no longer worked.
Therefore, as Jesse Bering writes, “one couldn't say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather, they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.” (Bering, 2006) It's what that knowledge means, or rather, how to develop that knowledge into a frame of mind that provides adequate comprehension of death, which gives them problems.