Death

The American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, ''Childhood is the kingdom where no one ever dies.'' This can be read in two ways: either children never encounter death or they never die. Many Americans rigidly adhere to such mythologies, as childhood death is now a relatively rare event, so that the probability of an infant surviving to age fifteen is close to 99 percent and life expectancy at birth is seventy-nine years. By contrast, in 1900, a couple faced a fifty-fifty chance that one of their three children would die before they grew up.

Because of the strong desire to spare children unnecessary anguish, many adults avoid discussing dying and death with them. ''Why take away their innocence?'' and ''They'll find out soon enough, when they are older,'' are typical justifications for this. Because of such denial of death, many adults assume that children do not think about death, should not attend funerals, and are not capable of grieving over loss. When a child is unexpectedly thrown into an encounter with death, such as when a pet or grandparent dies, frequently no explanation accompanies the experience, or euphemisms and metaphors (e.g., ''Grandma is having a long sleep'') are invoked that may promote even more confusion and anxiety for the child. Fortunately, recognition of the importance of learning and educating about dying and death has begun to open up meaningful dialogues and has led to significant research findings.

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