Children and Death Play…Why it is normal?
Children and death play.
Why do kids show themes of death, dying, and grief in their play, known as death play.
This is a great question and one that is asked quite a bit. Some people may worry when they see their child’s play including scenes from hospitals, crashes, funerals, and other types of “death scenes”. This death play may have adults worry that the child has a fascination with death, does not understand it, or is traumatized by it. We want to start out by saying that many forms of play around the themes of death, dying, and grief are quite normal. It is best known as death play.
Neuropsychology explains that our brains look to process situations, new knowledge, and unknown territory in ways that feel most comfortable in our brains. For older children, teens, and adults this may look quite different as they have learned how they best process information. Someone may throw themselves into cleaning, build something new, talk to a trusted person, or do a mindless activity that allows their brain to work through new experiences. For many children, they learn to process new information through play. While play can look simple and sometimes silly, it is usually more complex than meets the eye. It is said that play is a child’s work, and it truly is. It is what helps them to understand the world around them and even replay some situations where they may feel confused, “stuck.” You can find more about developmental differences here.
There may be a day a child goes to the zoo and they are later seen pretending to be an animal, or they may put stuffed animals in different places throughout a home. This may seem completely normal. You might find yourself thinking, “Yes, that’s just them recalling the fun day they had and trying to recreate the fun!” That’s true! In this same way, it is also true when we see a child death play by recreating a funeral scene while they play.
For many people, talking about dying, death, and grief can be a rather uncomfortable topic. While it’s not unusual to want to keep our children in a happy place and try to shield them from hard life lessons, they want to learn and understand what is happening. Talking with children about dying, death, and grief does not have to be a topic we have to “wait to talk to them about when they are older”. This is a lifelong conversation that can be had in little pieces as they grow, to help them understand and be supported in their own grief journeys.
If you are interested in learning more about your child’s death play, here are a few helpful tips to lean into the conversation:
Observe their death play. As adults we have a tendency to take control of certain situations, but when we just watch, we can learn so much about what they understand, what is still confusing for them, and how they are processing events. Join in on their play. Looking to create a teachable moment around these themes? Ask if you can join in their play and let the characters explain certain things or ask the child/other characters questions. This can be a wonderful way to share knowledge and allow the child to speak through the characters.
Let them death play. Sometimes our discomfort around dying, death, and grief can lead us to ending their play. We may not want to hear or see triggering words or scenes. We encourage you to do what you can to distance yourself from them, while still allowing them to do their work (through play).
Note: As previously mentioned, death-themed play should not be seen as abnormal, but should you feel uncomfortable with the play you are seeing or feel there is something of concern, do not hesitate to reach out to a local mental health professional or local bereavement center to discuss what you are seeing from the child. They are knowledgeable individuals who will be able to help you with more specific concerns.