Sooner or later it’s bound to happen. Your child’s imagination will hone in on the impermanence of life and the certainty that you - her parent - will die sometime.
For some, this insight can become an obsession and before you know it you have a fearful child on your hands - clingy, unwilling to go to bed alone and unable to sleep.
A mother recently, proudly recounted how she staved off one of her daughter’s now regular meltdowns, by telling her that by the time it was her turn - the mother’s, that is - they would have invented a cure from death. Well really!
Thinking about death is an obvious sign of curiosity and intelligence. Life and death are inextricably linked and, as far as I’m concerned, it is precisely because our life is brief and passing that we must learn to embrace it wholeheartedly, unencumbered by fear.
To support our child in this process of developing resilience and trust in his own resources to deal with the unknown, we need to start with ourselves.
Are you aware of the discomfort your child’s question about death brings up in you?
Maybe you’ve become a master at overriding your own body’s signals by deflecting your child’s important question with a funny retort or some other cack-handed rejection? I certainly remember feeling on very thin ice when these questions arose in our household some decades ago.
I would urge you to treat this moment as a prompt to explore your relationship with your own mortality. This is a difficult task for many of us modern people. We miss the framework and guidance of organised religion, which gives death a context in the big mystery of life; that understanding can also give real meaning to our individual lives.
In the meantime we must all heed the call and make room to address these big questions on a regular basis. It’s important to acknowledge - even if only to yourself - the fear and unease the thought of death might bring up in you.
Once you make space for your own wobbles on the subject, you will be in a better position to develop your child’s thinking on the subject, as opposed to it going underground and developing into fear.
Children’s fear of death crops up in my practice all the time.
Here are some strategies that help most children calm down quickly so that they can think more clearly and imaginatively about this important question.
1. As always, my foundation tips for everyone: have your first aid breathing technique “7/11” at hand. Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise, playtime and fresh air. Cut down on sugars and starches.
2. Check that your child’s life is pretty well balanced and that this fear isn’t a vent for another concern like school work or bullying.
3. Plan for regular ‘worry time’ to discuss and address the current concerns. Put a cap on the time - 15 minutes at a time - and teach your child to save any further rumination on the subject for the next slot you have planned. ‘Park the little worry car’ for now.
4. Externalise the worry by naming it. Call it a name like ‘worry monster’ (who worries about all sorts of things and death is one of them). Maybe your child can give the ‘worry monster’ a little metaphoric bed outside her bedroom door - he too needs sleep, after all.
5. Take your child on outings in nature and examine the cycle of life in all the endless ways it manifests itself. Looking at how plant- and animal-life continuously transforms itself with the passing of the seasons, immediately fires up children. Make it an on-going and hands-on exploration.
6. While talking about death in this context is helpful and reassuring, an over-exposure to it from TV and internet can be overwhelming. Check this out.
7. Tell stories. They don’t need explaining but serve in building an inner map of the terrain of life and the inner strength people discover when faced with unexpected challenges and change. Look for support in good children’s literature.
8. Never fob your child off with half-baked answers or metaphors that won’t serve in this moment. Answers like ‘death is going to heaven or living with God’ won’t help unless they are part of a bigger discussion.
9. Model the ability to live with uncertainty yourself.
- Try to focus on the here and now.
- Check out your own controlling tendencies and learn to relax more and allow things to unfold and evolve. It sets a great example.
- Perhaps you are inclined to block your deeper fears with food or shopping or chatting on the phone? Be honest.
Most importantly, praise your child for asking questions about death and dying.
Make sure you fully acknowledge his fear of not knowing when life will end, and the discomfort that comes with it.