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When a child fears dying

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Talking to kids about death

Settling down with my daughter at bedtime the other night, she suddenly started to cry. We'd had such a good day, so I was instantly perplexed. What could it be? It took a few minutes to get it out of her, but she finally said, "I don't want to die. I'm scared I'm going to fall asleep and die." Wow. Nothing like what I was expecting to hear. Amazing how parenting can throw you these curve balls when you least expect them.

Scared Little Girl

After being somewhat shocked for a few moments - while trying to reassure - I remembered that my boys had each gone through one of these phases. I struggled to remember what to do.

Death is a part of life

Whether we like it or not, death is a part of life. Certainly the concept of death has been in our house. We've lost a couple of much loved pets in recent years and our daughter is named after her late grandmother - and that's not the only grandparent who is no longer with us. My kids know that cemeteries are for the living, to remember loved ones who have passed. We talk about sadness in the missing and the happiness in the remembering. We came too close to losing her brother to a sudden illness for the comfort of any of us. It's not as morbid as it sounds; they know we cherish our lives.

That doesn't necessarily make talking to a five year old about her fears of dying any easier. Given her developmental stage, I needed to find the right words.

Emerging understanding of mortality

What I think my daughter's fears really show is an emerging understanding of her own mortality. Until recently, death was something that happened to other people, to pets. But now she has made the leap to understand it could happen to her, and that scares her. Heck, to think about my own mortality scares me!

Every child is going to get to this point, but when and how they express it is highly individual.

Reassurance, reassurance, reassurance

I can't tell my daughter she won't die, because it's not true. We make it a habit not to lie to the kids! What I can do is reassure her that she is healthy and Daddy and I do everything we can to keep her safe. I can tell her that I am fairly confident she will not die any time soon - and have many hopes and dreams for her and my future together. I can tell her how much I love her and how happy I am to have her in my life.

Fortunately, this level of reassurance seems to be working. The talk about death hasn't stopped completely, but it does seem to be more in context. Phew!

If, after all this reassurance your child still is extremely upset about the concept of dying - or if there has been a major emotional trauma that has preceeded the talk in your child -  it might be time to seek help. Your child's pediatrician can help you find a counselor that can help your child process this very real part of life in a sensitive and appropriate way. As hard as it is to think about, death is a part of life, and we all sometimes need reassurance when thinking and talking about it.

For more on talking to kids about death & dying:

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