Lined up, children listen to the commands: “alive, dead”. And then they start to stand or squat. The game, common at children’s parties, raises questions such as “why do those who are alive get up and those who are dead don’t?”. The song “how can a live fish live outside of cold water?” brings reflection on how one can continue without that company in everyday life.
From the playfulness of games and songs to the dynamism of electronic games in which it is necessary to gain lives to avoid “game over”, death is a theme present in children’s daily lives.
In a subtle or fateful way, it appears in narratives in books, films and in a closer look at nature. Death is in the dry leaves, in the flower that withers, in that insect that the ants carry or in the pet that went to “live in heaven”.
How to talk about death with children
Although it is a delicate subject, talking about death with children needs to be natural and simple. This is what Maria Júlia Kovács, senior professor and founding member of the Death Studies Laboratory, at the Psychology Institute of the University of São Paulo, explains.
For her, one must feel what the child knows and what he does not yet know about the topic. “Death, when it hits us, brings a series of difficult feelings. Therefore, it is important that the adult explains it in a way that the child can understand. If the issue is more serious, it is a good idea to tell her that she will no longer have the physical presence of that person or a small animal, for example.”
“This conversation with children is important, because at some point they will encounter death throughout their lives,” says Ediane Ribeiro, psychologist and postgraduate student in neuroscience and behavior. Anyway, “the conversation about death is a conversation about emotions”.
According to her, children learn to deal with their own emotions through the emotional regulation provided by the adults who live with them. So, the task of adults is not to explain death, but to give space for the child to express what they feel. “This will appear in changes in behavior: in sleep, having more nightmares; lack of appetite or eating more; or becoming more irritated, aggressive. It is important that she is allowed to express what she is feeling as part of mourning.”
Death is in play and in memories
If death is just an idea that drives stories in films, books and games, in real life, some children are faced with finitude, sometimes abruptly. “Death is an abstract concept, which, in a way, only becomes concrete from the first lived experiences”, says Kovács. Therefore, the conversation on the topic has several nuances and depends on each situation and the age of the child.
However, trying to approach it in a playful way is always a good way, starting from the examples that the psychologist cites about nature. “Maybe plant a tree to observe the cycle or explain that a bird that dies will no longer sing.”
In this sense, to understand that the end of a life is natural, the idea of death can also sharpen the child’s memory and feelings. “Drawing or writing about the person the child lost is important so that they remember the good times and that it remains as something that is good for them.”
What dies (re)begins in nature
In original communities, dying is also reliving. Children learn that everything that emanates life is renewed. “From an early age we learn that there is a beginning, an end and a new beginning. We consider that all forms of life – people, rivers, forests and animals – are fundamentally interconnected. So, when something dies, what ceased to be becomes again. Because everything is nature”, explains Edson Kayapó, professor of Teaching in Ethnic-Racial Relations, at the Federal University of Bahia.
Indigenous children can observe death without fear while playing freely in the forests; accompanying warriors on hunting and fishing days; or in conversation circles with your family. “We are the maximum representation of our ancestors. They are gone, but they still live, because they are present in us. They are not an image frozen in time.”
Among the rituals of the original peoples, Kayapó remembers that, in the ancient ritual linked to territorial disputes, the act of “devouring” the enemy had to do with respecting their strength. Death then became “life in the body of whoever devoured it”, he says.
In Kuarup, the funeral ritual of the Xingu people, the community gathers one year after the death of their relatives to cry, make offerings, sing and dance. “It is a reverence for ancestors, like a pact for the continuity of stories and memories.”
For the Yanomami, a lifeless body is also renewed among the relatives who remain. They, therefore, believe that the spirit strengthens the entire people when the ashes of those who die are mixed into a porridge called “ripu”, which is consumed amidst singing and dancing. Between mourning and cosmologies, death has the meaning of a new beginning for indigenous people who live in the present. Whether through memory or rituals that seek to perpetuate part of those who have passed away.
What do children from different religions know about death?
Clara, 12, spiritualist
“Death is not the end, but rather the beginning. When a person dies, they can be born again materialized, like a baby, or go somewhere else.”
Maria Alice, 9, Christian
“After death, you go to a dark place, where there is a ladder to climb. Then there is a trial to see if you were a good person and if you are going to heaven. It’s a beautiful place and God will be there.”
Adrielly, 13, candomblecist
“There is no life without death. When someone dies, we do an ‘axexê’ so the person can pass on.” [No ritual, os candomblecistas ‘desatam’ os laços dos mortos com o mundo dos vivos.]
How death presents itself in the arts for children
Despite the challenge of having honest conversations about death with children, it is important not to treat the topic as taboo. Experts recommend that girls and boys be educated about death from a sensitive. Thus, art can be an ally when talking about the subject with children.
The elaboration of mourning is present in “Up: High adventures” (2009). In the animation, living with Russel, a boy scout, makes the surly widower Carl see his wife’s death in a different way. This friendship between generations rekindles old dreams and makes Carl realize that it is still worth having good experiences with those he loves.
In “Viva – Life is a party” (2017), “Día de los muertos”, celebrated in Mexico, is the guiding thread of Miguel’s journey. In a light and fun way, the film shows the boy’s encounter with part of his family in the world of the dead. In the midst of his adventures to gain the support of his family to fulfill his dream of becoming a musician, Miguel understands the importance of keeping alive the memory of those who have passed away, mainly as a way of knowing your own origins.
“This film is good for older children, with a sense of family and nostalgia. Younger children, although they may not understand the meaning, can have fun with the colors, the skulls and the music. But it’s good to explain so there is no confusion between the living and the dead”, says psychologist Maria Júlia Kovács.
In literature, children’s books that talk about death, such as “Where do we go when we disappear?”, by Isabel Minhós and Bernardo P. Carvalho, can help introduce the subject to children in a poetic and fun way. In this book, some questions echo forever unanswered, but it also reveals that we are not the only ones to disappear: socks, rocks, sand. Nothing lasts forever.
Feelings can also change a lot throughout the grieving process. “You will remember the fun times. There will be days when you feel up and days when you will feel down”, says “The Goodbye Book”, by writer and illustrator Todd Parr. In it, children can discover ways to say goodbye to someone they love and how to deal with death.
* Judite Almeida and Larissa Fernandes contributed to this report.