Dear David Coleman: My daughter is obsessed with the possibility of us dying. What can we say to her?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I have a nine-year-old who has become obsessed, and really upset, about the possibility of us dying. She is insisting on a commitment from both of us that we will live forever. She is waking up at night and bursts out crying on occasions. Neither of us are sure how to deal with this situation. She is the youngest of four and the age gap is significant between her and the next sibling up. Maybe she sees the age difference between her classmates' parents and us? She is very clever and is excellent at school. What can we say to her?
David replies: Thoughts about death, and fears about death, are quite common in childhood. Indeed, most children are faced with the reality of death, either from the death of relatives or friends of the family, or even family pets.
Some children experience these events and, while they do grieve, may not get lost in the existential aspects of death and what it means. Other children, like your daughter, even when they don't experience death, do get caught up in the existential complexity, uncertainty and anxiety associated with death.
I'd never suggest that we thrust our children into a consideration of death, what it means, the finality of it, the unpredictability of it and the distress it can leave behind. However, when a child comes to the consideration of any or all of these things themselves, I think it can be a really good thing.
We can't really be human, nor fully engage with life, unless we have some appreciation for death. The reality of death being in all our futures means that we might strive to make the most of life, valuing and appreciating the experiences and people that are part of that life.
In some ways, then, I suggest that your daughter's consideration of death is actually quite a good thing. It is a natural thing, and like many natural experiences, will pass in time, even if you do nothing about it.
That said, there is a lot you can do to support her in the process. The first and most important thing you can do is to take her fears about death seriously. Being anxious about death is a very rational thing. It will help her if you can acknowledge her fears and show her that those kinds of fears are understandable.
This means saying things to her like, "I can see why you'd be worried about us dying. I think you'd really miss us if we were gone." Or maybe something like, "I think it makes sense to be a bit scared of dying, because we don't really know what happens to someone when they die."
Some parents may be reluctant to engage in these kinds of conversations, as they may seem a bit morbid, and we may fear, ourselves, that we will tip our child into further thoughts about death. In fact, we are more likely to reduce their thoughts about death by actively discussing the subject.
For a start, we normalise the experience of death, and we also, critically, can show our child through what we say and the tone of voice we use, that we too can contemplate death, but we are not overly distressed by it.
Naturally you can't give your daughter any guarantees that you won't die, nor any comfort about the timing of your death. What you can do is to acknowledge the uncertainty and to also validate your daughter's experience that that uncertainty may be anxiety-provoking.
Useful phrasing might sound like, "I guess you'd love if we never died. Wouldn't it be great if we could live forever and always mind you? I think you might be scared that we won't be around to mind you while you still need minding. Even though we don't know for sure, we also hope to be able to grow nice and old and be around for a long, long time."
If you have any beliefs about heaven, or an afterlife, then this is also the time to share those positive beliefs.
I think that if you can try to engage with your daughter about her feelings about death, that you will help her to process them and move on from them. Death is a very natural thing, and it is equally natural to think about it, and what it's impact on each of us will be. This seems to be where your daughter is at, and is the point at which you need to meet her.
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