A DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH TO COGNITIVE UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH AND DYING
Gary B. Seltzer
In our society, discussion of death and dying has not been fashionable, comfortable, or safe. Death is the last of a series of points along the life cycle. Our avoidance of the topic of death greatly influences our own lives, and also our ability to work with and care for other people. The ability to come to terms with our own mortality can influence our interpersonal sensitivity to people who are experiencing loss, grief, separation, or imminent death.
Freud1 held a different view, He suggested that we need to hold onto the belief that we are immortal and reject ideas to the contrary. This formulation of Freud and other similar formulations (e.g., Becker2) stresses our inability to recognize the inevitability of death. However, this denial of death exists more at the affective level than at the intellectual level.
It appears that there is developmental progression to our understanding of the construct, death. As a rule, this progression is chronologically-based and dictates when (at what age) we begin to understand the cognitive meaning of the word death. Children at different stages of cognitive development attribute different meanings to the concepts of death and dying. 3
As adult thinkers we are capable of understanding our mortality, even if we deny it emotionally. Children at various ages of development, however, understand only the meanings for which they are cognitively competent. That is, before adolescence, children do not fully understand that death is a universal phenomenon that happens to everybody and inevitably will happen to them. Similarly, people with cognitive