Death and dying are the most difficult of human experiences. Situations caused by or involving the dying process and death evoke intense, complicated feelings. Adults and children process death and express grief differently.
Everyone shares two experiences: birth and death. Worldwide, birth and death are considered two of life's great mysteries. Many people view death and dying with fear because no one knows what happens after death. According to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, there are about 1.8 deaths every second. Most people have known someone who has died. Yet many people avoid thinking or talking about death and dying. They avoid acknowledging that everyone dies.
How people accept and understand death is affected by the facts surrounding a death.
The age of the person and the cause of death influence how the living understand and accept a death. The death of an elderly person is most easily accepted by the living. An elderly person has lived a long life and death is life's natural end. However, when the young die or when death comes accidentally and without warning in the prime of life, many people find death confusing and unacceptable. When a young person dies, grief can be more intense. Illness, injuries, natural catastrophes, and violence can all cause early death.
Sometimes death results from terminal disease. Individuals of all ages with a terminal illness have to face their own death, and their families and friends must witness the dying process of their loved one. Psychologists * and physicians who work with people in this situation assert the importance of honesty and love. People with terminal illness and their loved ones need to understand the effects of the terminal illness and find ways to express their feelings about it. It helps to talk about it, enjoy time together, and assist with caregiving.
Grief is a strong, sometimes overwhelming, emotion in people who have experienced a loss. People experiencing grief may feel numb and removed from their daily life. They may be unable to perform daily tasks because of their overwhelming sadness.
Grief is a natural reaction to death. While grief is universal, it is also an individual experience. Everyone experiences grief in his or her own way. The nature of death affects a how a person experiences grief. The process of grief cannot be controlled. People experiencing grief will go through different stages, including denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Experts say that understanding the stages of grief can help a suffering person. Talking to others and trying to resolve emotional issues can also help a person struggling with grief. Most people need comfort and support from their relatives and friends while they grieve, and perhaps from members of the clergy, therapists, or members of a support group. Grief can last for months or even years. Generally, the pain of grief lessens as time passes, and the person learns how to live life without a loved one.
For most children, death is a new experience. It can be very confusing and frightening. Very young children may not fully understand what has happened and that death is permanent. They may not know what to expect after the death of a parent or sibling. Young children may be frightened by the reactions of other family members. If the death was unexpected, the confusion and fear can be even stronger.
Children feel many of the same feelings that adults do when someone dies—shock, sadness, and confusion—but children seem to process these feelings differently. They may wonder what effects the death will have on their life. Although they may not be able to express grief as adults do, they may find themselves wondering about the changes this loss may have on them and on their future. They may have fears about their widowed parent remarrying or having to move from their family home.
Sometimes it is hard for young people to understand their own feelings and reactions to death. Young people may also have trouble understanding the grief of adults around them. Grief can cause people to lose interest in activities they normally enjoy, and it may cause people to avoid situations that used to involve the person who died. People express grief in different ways and at different tempos. Family members may find it impossible to talk about what they are experiencing. Sometimes children get ignored when adults become preoccupied with their own feelings. Finding someone to talk to (a family member, friend, or trusted adult) may help young people understand their feelings and the feelings of those around them.
Most parents expect to die before their children. The death of a child disrupts this natural order and is often one of the hardest losses to accept. When a child dies, adults often feel overwhelming pain and devastation. Over time, these emotions may become feelings of guilt, anger, despair, sadness, and regret. All of these emotions are a normal and natural response to the death of a child.
Regardless of the facts concerning a child's death, parents often feel guilt for having failed to keep their child safe. Sometimes, after a child's death, parents become overly protective of their surviving children. Sometimes they blame the other parent. Some parents want to move or change their lives to avoid being reminded of the child who died. Because everyone's grief process is different, adults may choose different ways to come to terms with their grief and continue to live their lives. Many find that the support of others who have experienced a similar loss can help them more fully understand the grieving process and find a way to move forward with their lives.
Rituals help people come to terms with grief and death. Funerals, memorial services, and burials are generally held a short time after a death and sometimes on the anniversary of a death. These ceremonies bring out painful feelings and are often difficult to attend. However, they offer a way for people to express their feelings, take comfort from others who are grieving, and pay tribute to a person's life. Funerals or other rituals—such as planting a memorial garden, writing memories or a tribute, and enjoying the person's interests—help people stay connected to the deceased.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner, 1997. First published in 1969.
Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ (accessed April 15, 2016).
MedlinePlus. “End of Life Issues.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/endoflifeissues.html (accessed April 15, 2016).
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016-3007. Telephone: 202-966-7300. Website: http://www.aacap.org (accessed April 15, 2016).
American Psychological Association. 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242. Telephone: 202-336-5500. Toll-free: 800-374-2721. Website: http://www.apa.org (accessed April 15, 2016).
Compassionate Friends. 1000 Jorie Blvd., Suite 140, Oak Brook, IL 60523. Telephone: (630) 990-0010. Toll-free: 877-969-0010. Website: http://www.compassionatefriends.org (accessed April 15, 2016).
* psychologists (sy-KOL-o-jists) are mental health professionals who treat mental and behavioral disorders by support and insight to encourage healthy behavior patterns and personality growth. Psychologists also study the brain, behavior, emotions, and learning.