Monday, February 24, 2014

When children die

Precious lives 


A woman cradles a baby and breathes life into his mouth. On Wednesday 19 February, 2014 Miami traffic halted on a busy highway. Pamela Rauseo held her 5-month old nephew and cried for help. He had stopped breathing. She performed CPR as many travelers sprang into action. The baby lives thanks to Pamela’s quick response and all those good neighbors described in the Miami Herald report. news linked the event to a Christian text in their headline: “Good Samaritan performs CPR, saves infant’s life on busy highway.” Others spoke of the miracle. Religious language comes easy in American culture—especially when an infant is saved from the clutches of death.
Also on Wednesday, a Pennsylvania couple faced prison because they did not seek medical care for their 8-month old son. They come from a Pentecostal heritage. USA Today quotes their beliefs:
We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil's power," Herbert Schaible said in a 2013 police statement. Medicine, he said, "is against our religious beliefs."
Hailey Owens was found dead on Wednesday. The 10-year old girl had been abducted the day before by a school employee. The community near where I live, Springfield, Missouri, was on edge—praying- hoping she would be found. But on Wednesday the horrible end to this young life hit so many so hard. Local and national news carried the tragic finding. Hailey was shot in the head. Her loss is recognized in many ways. People have raised funds for the family. Many display candles and lights. Others wear her favorite colors.
Another story carries the news that Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas will picket Hailey’s funeral. According to KMBC news, “The Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church protests at funerals around the country, contending that U.S. soldiers and others are being struck down by God for defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality.”

As I looked at the opinions on the page of our local newspaper, I found a lengthy commentary by a local Baptist Pastor, Kevin Carson, who affirms the distress, praises the community response, and offers a Christian perspective on things. A Pentecostal clergyman, Steve Smallwood, posted a call for mourning and repentance on his Facebook page. He focused on Hailey and her family and their pain. And he challenged people to address personal and community sin.
This weekend I looked upon my eldest granddaughter in a different way. She’s only two years old. Several times she exclaimed, “This is fun!” She literally jumps for joy and often displays a broad smile when playing. How incredibly sad to think of those families robbed of the blessing of raising a child! As my wife read a children’s story at bedtime, I couldn't help thinking of the good feeling that comes with seeing a happy young child and a happy grandmother together. Each life enriches the other. When people share a moment, they share meaning.


Children are highly valued in many cultures. People all over the world pay attention when children suffer. The life of one child is worth stopping for. And the death of one child demands our attention. When people kill children or allow children to die, compassionate people are outraged. Caring people rise up to help the families. Righteous people rise up to demand justice and avenge the death.

Death stimulates life in many ways. Extending the ideas of Ernest Becker, psychological scientists developed Terror Management Theory. Faced with thoughts of death, people respond. We turn from death to find meaning in symbols and actions. The theory developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski in 1986 has been studied in many ways in the past three decades. When people just write about death or think of death people respond in predictable ways to cope with the anxiety.

Seven Ways People Respond to Death

1. People defend their religious or other values more strongly. The pastors quoted in the stories above illustrate the point about strong beliefs, which many will likely find helpful. Also illustrating a strengthening of beliefs is the announcement reported 21 February 2014 by USA Today that the 21-year old son of deceased Pentecostal snaking-handling pastor Jamie Coots will carry on his father’s ministry. In honor of his father’s beliefs, Cody Coots will continue to handle snakes. Under threat or perceived threat, religious values will generally increase.

2. People increase their aggressive stance toward the immoral. People cry out for justice. Murderers should be put to death. And this cry is evident in Springfield, Missouri. Under threat, people want to stand against all immorality. And some become self-righteous.

3. People become more interested in close relationships. We hug relatives and friends—even strangers during tough times. We gather in support of people who suffer near death experiences and those who mourn. News reporters are touched and focused on their own children when covering a tragic story. And now we see gatherings mediated by social networking sights showing virtual solidarity.

4. People want to have more children. In the introduction to their three experiments, Immo Fritsche and colleagues (2007, p. 753) wrote:
Death and birth are the fundamental boundaries of individual existence. It can be deeply distressing to face the inevitability of one’s own death. However, at the same time, it is wonderful and reassuring that by giving birth and raising children, life can be created out of nothing. Although humans are not able to determine the length of their own lives, they have the power to create new life by raising offspring.
5. People seek structure and organization. We want the timeline of events. We want to know the details of a tragedy as if knowing would help us understand. We seem to feel that knowledge will help us feel we are in control—but we are often not in control. Yet, when faced with death or near death situations, we can expect investigations and calls for tighter controls on background checks and stronger policies thought to protect innocent lives.

6. People become more religious –especially about life after death. Church attendance went up sharply in the U.S. following 9/11 but then declined within a few months. People pray, quote scripture, and seek counsel from religious leaders. We can expect a temporary rise in religiosity or spirituality in response to life threatening events.

7. People give more when faced with death or even thoughts of death. Funds are established for those who suffer loss. People give generously of their time and talents when faced with death.

A Note
Terror Management Theory has been studied in more than 300 investigations carried out in more than a dozen countries. Death is a powerful force for life. Terror Management Theory (TMT) explains much about how many if not most people respond to actual death and perceived life threatening events. The theory also helps leaders predict behavior, which can allow knowledgeable people to prepare. TMT does not explain or "explain away" the validity of a spiritual experience

Helping Kids Cope With Tragedy

Since 9/11 psychologists have worked to find ways that help children understand tragedies and develop coping strategies. Here’s a link to some ideas from the American Psychological Association.
A link to resources for children exposed to traumatic events- American Psychological Association.
A link to government resources for parents and teachers SAMHSA.

References and a reading list—especially related to psychology and religion

Beck, R. (2008). Feeling queasy about the Incarnation: Terror management theory, death, and the body of Jesus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36, 303-313.

Beck, R., McGregor, D., Woodrow, B., Haugen, A., & Killion, K. (2010). Death, art, and The Fall: A terror management view of Christian aesthetic judgments. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29, 301-307.
Becker, E. The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: Basic Books, 1971.
Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 155-195.
Davis, C. G., & McKearney, J. M. (2003). How do people grow from their experience with trauma or loss? Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 22, 477-492.
Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Hirschberger, G. (2002). The anxiety-buffering function of close relationships: Evidence that relationship commitment acts as a terror management mechanism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 527-542.  
Friedman, M., & Rholes, W. S. (2008). Religious fundamentalism and terror management. International 
Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 18, 36-52.

Friedman, M., & Rholes, W. S. (2009). Religious fundamentalism and terror management: Differences by 
interdependent and independent self-construal. Self and Identity. 8, 24-44.

Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Fischer, P., Koranyi, N., Berger, N., & Fleischmann, B. (2007). Mortality salience and the desire for offspring. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 753-762.
Greenberg, J. (2012). Terror management theory: From genesis to revelations. In P. R. Shaver, & M. Mikulincer (Eds.). Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (pp. 17-35). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Greenberg, J., T. Pyszczynski, and S. Solomon (1986). The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory. Public Self and Private Self Ed. R. F. Baumeister. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61–139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory: II. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308–318.
Hirschberger, G., & Pyszczynski, T. (2011).  Killing with a clean conscious: Existential angst and the paradox of morality.  M. Mikulincer & P. Shaver (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil.  American Psychological Association: Washighton, DC.
Jonas, E., Schimel, J., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2003). The Scrooge Effect: Evidence that Mortality Salience Increases Prosocial Attitudes and Behavior." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, 1342-135
Landau, M. J., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2004). The motivational underpinnings of religion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 743-744.
Pyszczynski, T., S. Solomon, and J. Greenberg (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for Terror Management Theory I: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Violate or Uphold Cultural Values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989): 681-690.
Soenke, M., Landau, M. J.  & Greenberg, J.  (2013). Sacred armor: On the anxiety management function of religion and spirituality. In K. Pargament (Ed.) Handbook of Religion and Spirituality. Washington, D.C.: APA Press.
Stoppa, T. M., Wray-Lake, L., Syvertsen, A. K, & Flanagan, C. (2012). Defining a moment in history: Parent communication with adolescents about September 11, 2001. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 1691-1704.
Wilson, K. M., & Bernas, R. (2011). A good man is hard to find: Forgiveness, terror management, and religiosity. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 126-140.

Wisman, A., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). From the grave to the cradle: Evidence that mortality salience engenders a desire for offspring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 46-61.

Wisman, A., & Koole, S. (2003). Hiding in the crowd: Can mortality salience promote affiliation with others who oppose one's worldviews? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 511-526.

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