How to help a child afraid of death

Advice from parents about how to talk to children about dying

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Original poster:

"Hi, my 4.5 year old daughter has finally realized that some day she is going to die (this is after months of talking about how someday grandma is going to die, then mom is going to die, etc).  She is distraught. I know that this is a normal stage kids go through. Since we are a nonreligious family (although in times like this we were a Church-going one!) I have tried to explained the best i could that nobody knows exactly what happens after we die. I have told her the different "options" people have chosen, and that some day she will have to decide what her beliefs are. Anyway, the "problem" is that now she has become terrified every time i leave the room (she has always been very affectionate, but independent). She has a fit every time she can't find me (even at home!). I am particularly concerned that she will be starting Kindergarten in a few weeks (at a new school), and that she will have a terrible separation anxiety (and me too!!)."


Related PSP reading:

For a list of Books for parents and kids about death, click HERE.

Explaining Death to Children




"I have had this discussion with many mothers. It is my opinion that children are almost hard wired to start thinking/obsessing about death and mortality at about the age of 4. Both of my kids did it and most of my friend's children as well. Whether or not they had person experience with death, (Pet, grandparent, etc.) boys and girls, they all did it.  First of all, it is totally normal. Secondly, all of the advice I read about helping a child with grieving for the death of a loved one (My mother-in-law died when my oldest son was 3) said to answer questions truthfully and matter of fact. Whatever that means to you. For me it was: Everything that is alive eventually dies but usually not until it is very old and has lived a long meaningful life. (not 100% accurate but served the purpose for this particular discussion) I think the idea is to discuss it openly to de-mystify the concept of death because their fear is of the unknown. At a certain point, my kids were satisfied with their understanding of the subject and moved on to the next life mystery. At first it felt morbid talking about death, specifically grandma's, so matter of fact but once I got past that, it really helped my kids."


"My daughter went through this as well, when she was about 3. Really prescient, scary stuff - but I think you're doing the right thing, saying that nobody really knows what happens afterwards. I also used to add, "And it won't happen for a very, very long time" - trying to move the worry away from the immediate. And yeah, the accompanying separation anxiety does follow - my daughter also went ballistic when I left the room, around that time."


"Better she should go through this now - I had a friend who went through it as a 9-year-old (along with paralyzing shyness) and she had a REALLY tough time."


"It sounds like she's anticipating kindergarten, definitely. Knowing that she'll be on her own in a way she hasn't been before. My daughter had more than a few gripes about how much more responsible she had to be as a kindergartener than as a preschooler! But most of these things are phases, and I find it's more a matter ofgetting through it to the next phase (Uglydolls, little sisters, food with beans in it, whatever the next obsession is, positive or negative...). Life never stops hurling those curve balls at you."


"I never thougt kids at four could be so aware - I see I am not alone. It was at four my daughter turned to me one day and asked "Am I going to die". I was shocked. Then I read, I am not sure where but somewhere reliable, that children at four are hardwired to realize the death reality. Over the next months we had various little conversations about death - she asked where people go when they die, when is someone old. She did this thing where she would say when will I be old, tomorrow"? I'd say "no" and she'd say "the next day" which we would repeat that about twenty times in a row - which ihoped showed her how far away old was for her. We wrote out a chart of numbers to show how many years it takes to get old. Not too long ago she asked about some death issue and I was stummped and it was obvious and she said "why can't we talk about this". She is still a little afraid of the issue but now seems comfortble with the thought that when someone dies their energy goes back to the universe until they feel rested enough to go into a new body and live another life. She knows that is the philosphy our family subscirbes to but that other people think other things. Also in talking about what makes people old we were saying how if we can be happy and hopeful then in our hearts we will always be young - just our bodies get old (and angry sad people  can be old inside even if they are young). These things seem to speak to her. We actually know a lot of people who have died but maybe it is what happens to families with "older" parents."

"Actually I'd advise something different....I don't think very young children can handle our adult questions or uncertainties about this kind of thing. What a 4 year old really needs is a sense of clarity and certainty about what happens, and even though we don't *really* know, of course, they come to realize that themselves when they are 11, 12, 13 etc....and able to wrestle with this issue from a more mature perspective.  I don't know how well this sits with someone who is non-religious, but one need not be religious to believe that we have both souls and bodies. This issue came up in a challenging way almost 6 years ago now, when my mother died and I had an infant, a 2 year old and a 7 year old. My youngest actually had the most questions about what happens after death in the ensuing years because we talk about my mother and I do take the children once a year or so to visit her grave. I have found the traditional Jewish view, on a rudimentary level, of what happens after death not only comforting to me, but to them as well. And that is that we have bodies and souls, and when we die our bodies rejoin the earth but our souls continue on and stay close to those who we love. And though we can't see the souls with our eyes, I compare it to love. We can't *see* love, but when we think about how much we love each other we know with certainty that the love is real. I would say to my child that "even after my body is part of the earth, my soul will always stay close to you, and I will never leave you. And you will only have to sit quietly and look for me in your mind and your heart and you will feel me close to you, always."
Perhaps she'll find this reassuring."


"We have done something similar to what [the previous poster[ suggests. My mother died when my son was just a little over a year, and my mother-in-law when he was still very young. We tell him that when people die, after they get very, very old, like in their 80s or 90s, their bodies stop working but because we remember them and talk about them, those people are never really gone. We actually try to keep those people "alive" in our family by telling favorite stories about them, showing him pictures of them, sharing their favorite recipes, etc., and saying that even though we can't see them in person, they will always be all around us. Last year we took him to visit my mother's grave and he sang a song for her because he knew she loved music. He sometimes asks if they're in heaven, and seems to understand the philosophy that we have about heaven not being an actual place, but the idea and memory of someone. He seems okay with the idea, and when we answer his questions, he moves on to the next subject."


"I agree with everyone's replies so far, and just to add, for what it's worth--although it can be developmentally appropriate to be asking and worrying about death at this age, it may be that anticipation of kindergarten is really driving these anxieties (as previously suggested as well). So maybe some acknowledging that sometimes when children are getting ready for kindergarten they feel extra-worried about lots of things, but they probably won't be worried for very long. And then some humor and especially distraction, with lots of time for empathy and validation (and maybe more books about starting kindergarten than about death)? Maybe even to say that once she starts kindergarten and gets used to it, if she's still worrying a lot about death you can talk more about it then?"


"Obviously I don't know her or what can work, but sometimes separation anxiety can be displaced onto fears of death. So I'd try to grapple with the separation anxiety first--and distraction may be a big part of it this many weeks before school starts--then see what's left over."


"Just something to add to this thread - if it does turn out that anxiety about kindergarten is driving this fear... There's a great book that my son loved called "Kindergarten Rocks!" by Katie Davis. We read it a lot before he started kindergarten. I just have one quick thing to add to this. "A very long time" is sometimes much different to a 3 or 4 year old than to an adult.  So, is an old person. I remember thinking people were old when they were in their 30s! HAH!!!! A child development specialist I spoke with about this mentioned that you should be as specific as possible in talking about when a long time is. . .meaning, "after you grow up and have grown up children of you own" is one example."