Ask the Expert: How can I calm my son’s fears about death?
By listening you communicate that your son is not alone and you relieve the burden of these fears. Photograph:Getty Images
Q My son, who will turn six soon, is afraid of death. He got very upset when I tucked him into bed last week and started to cry. He said he didn’t want to grow up as that would mean we (his dad and I) would get old and we would die. And that he wanted our family to stay together forever and didn’t want anyone to die.
He has not had any direct loss or experience with death. Almost a year ago a friend of his dad’s died and we explained briefly why his dad was sad at the time. Also, one of the boys in another class at school lost his dad a few years ago.
My son goes to a Catholic primary school and they light a candle and say a prayer each morning. He says he doesn’t like it as it reminds him of God, heaven and then death.
I spoke to his teacher and she said they would try to concentrate on “Thank you” prayers. I also notice that a lot of his role-play games involve soldiers, knights and death lately.
What should I say to him? I want to reassure him that we will all have a long happy life together, but how can I promise something I have no control over myself?
A Talking to a child about death is one of the most difficult conversations we can have as parents. Though it is normal and part of life, culturally we tend to avoid conversations about death and it can be quite taboo to raise the subject socially.
It can be particularly hard to see our children being worried about death and we naturally want to take this away from them.
In addition, such conversations can bring up your own fears about death – when your child worries about a close family member dying, it can trigger your own worries about the same subject.
Even parents who want to listen and support their children with their questions about death can be at a loss as to how to respond – such questions can challenge parents’ personal beliefs about death, religious or otherwise, that they have inherited, and they may not have thought through what values they want to communicate to their children about this important issue.
Death awareness in children
More than parents realise, children do think about death. Whether or not they have direct experience of it through bereavement or the loss of a pet, death is still all around them, in their games and stories or in the adult news that they might pick up on.
From as young as two or three, children are likely to ask questions about death, though at this young age they often don’t appreciate it as permanent. They often see it as reversible, much like a cartoon character disappearing and coming back, and frequently don’t see it as personal and affecting them.
From the age of about five, children begin to appreciate death as permanent and potentially something that can affect them or their families.
It seems like your son has suddenly acquired this awareness. He has made the connection that the people close to him will eventually die. Naturally, this might make him fearful of growing up and seek to hold on to you forever.
Think through your own view of death
In thinking how to support your son, it can be helpful for you to think through your own view of death. How do you make sense of death in the context of your own philosophical, spiritual or religious beliefs?
While death is a tricky thought to deal with, most philosophers argue that facing the issue can give rise to deep personal meaning. People who take death seriously and thus understand the fragile nature of life can live life more deeply and richly, making the most of each day.
The fact that your son is raising these questions provides you with a parallel opportunity to work out how to live with meaning.
Talk openly and listen when he asks questions
It is great that you are listening carefully to your son and helping him express his fears. By listening you communicate that he is not alone and you relieve the burden of these fears. Remember, talking does not mean you have all the answers to his questions but it can really be supportive to your son and build a special bond between you.
Be realistically reassuring
I think it is okay to be realistically reassuring after you have listened to your son’s fears. You can say that while all people eventually die, you expect to live a long life and expect to have lots of fun and great experiences with him. An upbeat focus on the great things to come is often a good way to finish these conversations.
Share your spiritual beliefs with him
It is a good idea to share your spiritual beliefs with him, whether these are traditional ones about going to heaven or other ones that help you. For example, I often remind children that the fact that we worry about losing someone is a sign of how much we love them. You can focus on how grateful you are to have each other and how important it is to enjoy life together and live with kindness and love.
Talk about the religious aspect in his school and what you think about these beliefs. You could fit in with his prayers in school with your own gratitude prayers at home. There are lots of good children’s books about death that you could read with him such as Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney which tells the story of waterbugs transforming into dragonflies and going on to a new stage of life from where they can’t go back. Find one that fits with your own beliefs.
Obsessive worry about death
A minority of children get over-worried about death to the extent that it interferes with their life or causes too great an anxiety. If this happens for your son, do seek support from a child mental health professional.
Dr John Sharry is a psychotherapist and director of the Parents Plus charity. He will be delivering a “Creating Work Life Balance” seminar in association with The Irish Times on November 9th in Wynns Hotel, Dublin 1. See solutiontalk.ie