Adolescents' Perceptions and Experiences of Death and Grieving

By Morin, Suzanne M.; Welsh, Lesley A. | Adolescence, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Adolescents' Perceptions and Experiences of Death and Grieving


Morin, Suzanne M., Welsh, Lesley A., Adolescence


By the time an individual has reached adolescence, it is likely that he or she has been exposed to death. Some adolescents encounter it through a personal loss, such as the death of grandparents, parent, or even a peer. However, even those who have not experienced a direct loss, have some experiences and perceptions of death. It is virtually a universal experience to be exposed to the sensationalized treatment of death through the media such as television, movies, lyrics, and even video games such as Mortal Kombat. The purpose of this study was to examine adolescents' perceptions and experiences of death and grieving.

The majority of thanatology research on adolescents' reaction to death has focused on the impact of the death of a parent (Gray, 1987; Weller, Weller, Fristad, & Bowes, 1991) or the death of a sibling (Balk, 1990, 1991; Hogan & Balk, 1990; Hogan & Greenfield, 1991). Other researchers have investigated adolescents' grief and bereavement over the death of a peer (Evans, 1982; Gray, 1988; McNeil, Sillimon, & Swihart, 1991) and the impact of suicide (Mauk & Weber, 1991; Solomon, 1982; Zinner, 1987). However, the predominance of research on death has targeted populations known to have experienced a recent loss. This study expands the knowledge base by sampling adolescents' perceptions of death and grieving regardless of their past experience.

Researchers have found that adolescents share the adult concept of death as a universal, inevitable process by which life as we know it terminates (Aiken, 1994; Nagy, 1948; Tallmer, Formanek, & Tallmer, 1974; Sahler, 1978). Gaffney (1988) reports that adolescents are capable of understanding the physiological, psychological, and religious or spiritual aspects of death. A study by Sahler (1978) revealed that adolescents' beliefs about death varied greatly but that "spiritual continuation after death" was the most frequently reported belief. Stricherz & Cunningham (1981-1982) reported that adolescents' concerns centered around losing a person they loved, punishment, and the finality of death.

Individual differences in a person's concept of death may be influenced by many factors such as family and cultural background, life experiences, and environment which are often related to socioeconomic status (SES) and race. Despite the fact that African-Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population, 50% of murder victims in the U.S. were African-American. Most people arrested were below average SES (U.S. Dept of Justice, 1992). Homicide has been reported as a leading cause of death in African-American men (Aiken, 1994). These statistics consistently indicate that adolescents do have different perceptions and experiences of death that may be as varied as their environments.

According to Tallmer et al. (1974) lower-class children are more aware of the concept of death than are middle-class children. Other researchers indicate that different life experiences contribute to diverse conceptualizations of death (Dunton, 1970). Therefore, it was hypothesized that adolescents from different environments would report different perceptions and experiences of death and grieving.

METHOD

Sample

The sample consisted of 32 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. Nineteen of the subjects attended a suburban public school, while 13 were in a residential facility which serves urban delinquent youth who have committed nonviolent acts. Thus, this urban sample of nonviolent delinquents and may not be representative of urban nondelinquents. The adolescents from the public high school included 4 males and 15 females. The ethnic composition was 18 Caucasians and one African-American. All 13 of the subjects from the urban sample were African-American males.

The subjects who attended the suburban public high school reported their religious background as: 6 Roman Catholic; 3 Brethren; and 8 Protestant. Two youths did not provide this information. …

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