Childrearing

Help! My 4-Year-Old Is Scared To Death Of Dying

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mom talking to daughter

Image: iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

My grandmother was a huge fan of Christmas decorations. Every year she purchased at least a few new pieces to add to her already giant Christmas display. Since she’s been gone, I always get a little teary-eyed when stores begin putting out their Christmas displays. So when I was shopping with my daughter and a friend just a few weeks ago, I told him how very much my grandmother would have loved a particularly beautiful Christmas village display that we were gaping at. And a few seconds later I began to realize just how much trouble one little comment had created.

“Mommy, where’s your grandma now?” my four year old asked, looking up at me with her big blue eyes. Now, I have a rule that I will not lie to my daughter if she asks me a direct question. And so I told her that my grandmother had died several years ago. She blinked twice and then big tears started to drip down her face. I assured her that my grandmother had lived a wonderful, full life and that our whole family believes that she is in heaven looking down on us all right now. This seemed to make her feel better and I didn’t give the incident too much thought.

Nearly a week later my daughter burst out sobbing as we were putting together a 3-D skeleton puzzle. It took some time, but I finally got her calmed down enough to tell me what was wrong. Turns out that after nearly a month of gory Halloween displays my daughter had figured out that dead people rot and turn into skeletons and our little project had reminded her of my dead grandmother. As if this wasn’t bad enough, this time she wanted to know if she would die someday too. Remember what I said before about never lying? It took all the willpower I had to look my child in the face and tell her that, yes, in fact one day she was also going to die and so was I and her dad and every other person she knows and loves.

No amount of assurances about the afterlife and heaven — assurances that I find difficult to give since I don’t really know what happens after we die, despite what I may believe — make my daughter feel any better. She understandably doesn’t want to die and she’s angry with me for not being able to make her immortal. What’s more, in the two weeks or so since crafting our skeleton, every time something reminds her of death she goes into a tailspin of crying and fear, begging me again and again to tell her that she’s never going to die.

Talking about death with young children is extremely difficult, so when my daughter began to express her fears I decided to consult some experts. My experts include my mom and her two best friends who are all trained pediatric nurses. They assured me that children as young as my daughter don’t really know what death is and that she was probably fixated on my own expression of sadness that my grandmother is dead. Our family pediatrician said the same thing. Finally I consulted a child therapist who gave me the same line. She also warned me to keep my answers short, as I could otherwise wind up giving out more information than my daughter was actually asking for. Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that she knew just what death and dying meant, especially as she described it as “not being here any longer” and having “your body turn into a skeleton in the ground”.

It was clear to me at least that my daughter was aware of death and had a basic understanding of it, so I decided I needed to figure out what aspects of death were making her so obsessive and anxious. Since my daughter is so young it took a lot of detective work and probing questions to figure out where she is getting her ideas about death from and what, specifically, she is afraid of. I think her current issues have to do with the idea of losing her body and no longer being in a place she is familiar with. I’ve tried to assure her that while death is inevitable, her family will always be there for her and I’ve done my best to share my belief that you will be with those you love in the afterlife. Our conversations about death have made me realize that I need to pick and choose my words carefully. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal stories about kids refusing to go to bed because someone has described death to them as being similar to falling asleep. I try whenever possible to avoid using euphemisms which might not translate and I refrain from being too graphic in my descriptions. At the same time I’m trying to make sure that I answer her questions fully since, for my child at least, not knowing is significantly more terrorizing.

The most difficult part of the whole situation is knowing that no matter what I say I can never take away her biggest issue with death, namely that it’s going to happen to her one day too. That is perhaps what makes death such an uncomfortable subject to discuss with children. It’s one of the few things they fear that we can’t make better. I can assure my daughter that monsters don’t exist and shoo a million spiders out of her room and leave the nightlight on all night, but I can’t stop death.