You may have read my previous post about my own fear of death, which the early COVID situation brought to the surface frequently. I had just about turned my life around to being healthier, with the aim of living as long as possible, when my daughter was extremely sad about the prospect of her own life coming to an end. No words calmed that distressful realisation. So here I am again, doing a blog post with lessons learnt from my own reaction to her fears.
The Lead Up To The Realisation Of Death
We haven’t experienced the death of any close loved ones, or pets. However, she did find a dead hedgehog in the early Summer, and she can understand the difference between a living insect and a dead insect. Her cousin of the same age experienced the death of a close grandparent, and when he last visited he talked to our daughter about what happened.
More recently, my daughter has been building up questions regarding death. She recently asked whether she would die. I replied honestly, that yes but in many many years times. The other night she got hysterical about it as I was taking her to bed. She was screaming “I don’t want to die EVER!” and she continually stressed the word ‘ever’.
My Response To My Daughter’s Realisation Of Death
My response to my daughter’s distress was unprepared. I had read a lot about normal development in this area. However, most the previous research I’d done was about the child fearing the parent dying or disappearing. I had that response fully prepared “I will love you forever” (thanks to Gordon Neufeld) or “I am eating healthily and working to be as fit as possible to be around for a long time”, or something along those lines depending on the question.
However the question my 4 year old daughter, who will be 5 in January, gave me was out of that research.
Daughter: “I don’t want to die EVER!”.
Me: “You’ll live a looong long time. That’s why we’re being healthy and making sure we keep you safe by roads…”
Daughter: “But I don’t want to die EVER!”
After a lengthy time of this sentence and lots of tears and screaming, I was racking my brain with what I could offer. I don’t personally believe in the after-life or reincarnation, but hey, with a hysterical 4 year old it sounded like a nice offering for her.
Me: “Well, do you know what? Some people believe in things like reincarnation where you come back as a butterfly or another person…”
Daughter: “I want to be ME forever!”
Wow. Well, my gentle parenting brain was sort of celebrating that last sentence, because that definitely is what I wanted my children to feel about themselves. To be proud of who they are, and not to want to be any different. My brain, however, continued wanting to give my little girl some comfort. This is a truthful story which I thought I’d share with her about my Dad.
Me: “Can I tell you something very special? You know I miss my Dad very much since he died. Well when you were just a baby, you walked completely on your own off the edge of the sofa and took your first steps. You didn’t walk again for months, not even one step. Do you know what day that was? My Dad’s birthday. So perhaps he’s still here with us as your angel or something”
Daughter: “I don’t want to be something else! I want to be me forever! I don’t want to die ever!”
I was feeling sad that my daughter had realised the truth of life so young, and that there was nothing I could say to console her. I changed my approach from the above to what was probably the best response I offered her the whole night. I just held her and stroked her hair and changed my words to “I’m here for you.” This is typically the approach gentle parents take to a child’s strong emotional distress anyway.
The Morning After…
The next morning, my daughter is overheard saying “When I turn into a butterfly or another person, I’ll still be a *her own name* butterfly!”. That suggestion I made the night before may have delayed the inevtiable understanding of death? I am relieved that, for now, she seems at peace with the idea of reincarnation.
Do I Now Think I Should Have Just Allowed The Emotion Of Death to Flow?
Several philosophers have explained the concept that the finality of death is what can drive us to make the most of life. Valuing life can make us feel contented and happy for what we have in life when death eventually comes. Example reading on this includes: The Psychology of Josh Whedon,
I witnessed that contentedness when my Uncle died of cancer a couple of years ago. We saw him just minutes before he died. He genuinely seemed pleased to be surrounded by his family. He was still cracking jokes and looked loving and relaxed. Perhaps that was the drugs? But I like to believe it was because he knew he’d contributed, to the best of his abilities, to each person in that room, and throughout his life.
As an adult I can understand this concept of giving your all in life and make the most of it as ‘time is short’. However, I am happy my daughter has staved off her fear by taking on the idea of reincarnation. I am expecting at some future point she asks if I believe in reincarnation, at which point I will say no-one knows what happens. My daughter, over the many years of her life, can weigh up different beliefs of what happens after death and draw her own conclusions. I don’t regret offering her the possibilities.
UPDATE: 11 days have passed since I wrote this post. Since then, my daughter got very distressed ‘what if I turn into an ant and someone squashes me!…. What if I turn into a lion? I don’t want to eat people!” I realised that throwing that idea out there was perhaps not the best long-term solution.
I had read other bloggers online who pretty much all said to say that the body stops. Personally, I just didn’t think that would cut the fear. It certainly didn’t resolve my fear! However, I had an amazing conversation with my daughter in the daytime when she was very upset about the prospect of death. I mentioned about the body stopping, because although it didn’t sit right with me, nothing else had helped her fear either. Then she mentioned “what if I’m lying there asleep forEVER”, and I immediately said “we’re not asleep when we’re dead. Our brain stops working too – our whole body including brain stops working. You won’t have any idea you’ve died. No idea at all.”. My daughted asked “so I won’t be sad?” and I said “nooo, you want be sad, you won’t have any clue at all!”.
After that conversation, my daughter immediately stopped crying or showing any signs of distress. I asked if she was ok and she said “yeah I feel better”. She hasn’t mentioned anything related to death again since, which she had been raising daily. A few peaceful days have passed and she seems back to her normal self again. So when you’ve read all the same blog sites as me and you’re about to give up and get therapy to stop your child’s fear of death… perhaps a conversation about the body and brain stopping may help you too.
Is This The Prelude To Something Bigger?
It’s clearly a natural developmental leap to start discovering and fearing death. Typically this is around ages 5-10, as stated in this research here. Could this fear of death be the prelude to her realising her true love for others?
I am personally feeling our daughter is feeling stronger feelings for us. The night after her death fear came out, she said she loved me too when putting her to bed. She hasn’t copied us saying loving thoughts in the past, so this response was something she’s put a lot of consideration into. Gordon Neufeld and Deborah MacNamara expect an attached child to feel love between the ages of 4 and 5 too. It is logical that the realisation that no-one lives forever would bring out the feelings of love for other people too.