Death and Dying
A person is dead when he or she stops breathing and the heart and brain permanently stop functioning. A dead person cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell and has no awareness or feelings.
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Everyone on this earth shares two experiences: we are born and we die. Someone dies about every 20 seconds. Most of us know someone who has died. But we do not generally like to think about death or talk about death or even acknowledge that we all die. Around the world throughout the ages, death always has been a source of mystery and fear.
How Do We Understand Death?
Our reactions to death often depend on how someone has died and how old they were. The most easily understood are deaths at an old age, when a person's body simply wears out. But others die before their bodies wear out, and sometimes people die with no advance warning. Illness, injuries, natural catastrophes, and violence all can cause early death.
Sometimes people, including children, have to face their own deaths. They may have a terminal illness, a disease or condition that eventually will cause death. Psychologists and physicians who have worked with families in this situation believe that honesty and love from others are very important at this time. People with terminal illness and their families need to understand the effects of the illness and find ways to express their feelings about it. It helps to talk about it, enjoy time together, and help with caregiving.
What Is Grief?
Grief is the wide range of feelings that accompany a death, such as shock, sadness, anger, and confusion. Even when we know ahead of time that someone is going to die, it does not necessarily soften the impact. It still may be difficult to believe that the death has occurred and hard to imagine life without this special person. When the death is sudden and unexpected, the shock of the news may make it hard to come to grips with the reality. Such shock can take a while to fade. Most people need comfort and support while they grieve, either from their personal circle of family and friends or from clergy, therapists, or support groups.
How Do Children Cope with the Death of a
Parent or Sibling?
When a sibling or parent dies, everyone in the family suffers. Very young children may not fully understand what has happened and that the death is permanent. Children feel many of the same feelings that adults do when someone dies: shock, sadness, or confusion. Children often personalize a death, asking, "Will it happen to me?" or "Did I cause this to happen to someone else?" A death can stir up fears: "Will I get cancer too?" or "Is it safe to drive?" A child may wonder how the death will alter his or her life: "Will Mom remarry now that Dad has died?" or "My brother died. Will we have to move?"
Sometimes it is hard for young people to understand their own feelings and reactions to death. Grief can cause people to lose interest in things that they normally enjoy, or they might avoid situations that used to involve the person who died. Reactions like these are normal. Finding someone to talk with (a family member, friend, or trusted adult) usually helps young people understand their feelings and eventually accept the death.
How Do Adults Cope with the Death of a Child?
As with the death of a parent or sibling, the death of a child causes extreme sadness and distress in a family. Whether the death came suddenly or gradually, parents often struggle with guilt that they could not prevent their child's death or even that they outlived their child. Sometimes, after a death, parents might feel the urge to move or change their lives to avoid situations that remind them of their dead child. Most experts say that this is not the best course. As the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross notes, it is usually healthier to face and acknowledge the pain, rather than avoid it.
How Do Rituals Help People Cope with Death?
Funerals, memorial services, and burials are generally held a short time after a death and sometimes on the anniversary of a death. These cere- monies are often sad and difficult to attend. But they help people to ex-press their feelings, take comfort with others who are grieving, and pay tribute to a person's life. Funerals or other rituals—such as planting a memorial garden, writing, enjoying the person's interests—help people stay connected to the person even after the death.
What Happens After Death?
No one knows what happens after death, and people have many different beliefs about it. They might believe that people go to heaven when they die. Some people believe that a person's "soul" lives on and that the "spirit" goes somewhere else after death. Still others believe in rebirth or reincarnation, with the soul continuing its life in another person. Some people do not believe in a soul. Even in the face of these unknowns, most people take comfort in the natural cycle of life and death and find meaningful ways to enjoy the memories of people who have died.
Mummies of Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, there were elaborate rituals performed to preserve the body after death. This was done to make sure that the dead person would be connected to gods and spirits in the afterlife. The first step was embalming, which involved removal of major body organs, drying the body, and wrapping it in linens and spices. The higher the individual's status in society, the more elaborate the ritual. The coffin was painted with a portrait of the person and filled with valuables, such as gems and prized possessions of the deceased, to be used in the afterlife. Cats, which were thought to be sacred, were sometimes mummified and buried with their owners.
Brown, Laurie Krasny, and Marc Tolon Brown. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. A picture book written for younger children, but thorough and thoughtful enough to appeal to adolescents.
Dower, Laura. I Will Remember You: What To Do When Someone You Love Dies: A Guidebook Through Grief for Teens. New York: Scholastic, 2000. Personal stories from teens who have experienced loss, and handson creative exercises in coping.
Fitzgerald, Helen. The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. A practical guide that answers questions and helps a teenager understand a range of situations involving dying and death.
Gootman, Marilyn. When A Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1994. A sensitive guide to help teens cope with the death of a friend. For ages 11 and up.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Children and Death: How Children and Their Parents Can and Do Cope with Death. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. A compassionate guide for families of dead or dying children.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Trozzi, Maria, with Kathy Massimini. Talking with Children About Loss: Words, Strategies, and Wisdom to Help Children Cope with Death, Divorce, and Other Difficult Times. New York: Perigree, 1999. For adults, and suitable for older teen readers.
Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, A. I. duPont Hospital
for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This
organization is dedicated to issues of children's health. Their
website has articles on coping with death, with valuable links to