Q The grandfather of one of my son’s preschool classmates died a few months ago. Our family is fortunate in that we have not experienced the death of a loved one since our children have been born, but his classmate’s experience has really stuck with my son. He didn’t mention anything about it for months after it happened but recently has been revisiting the idea of death and is worried that my husband or I will get old and die. (Interestingly, he has not asked whether his own grandparents, to whom he is very close, will die.) He tells us that he can’t stop thinking that he will also die. I have tried to normalize his thoughts for him, as I realize this is a huge concept that kids try to make sense of around his age. I reassure him that we are fortunate to have healthy bodies and should live a long time. I’m just wondering what else I can say to acknowledge his feelings but also calm his mind. I’m particularly sensitive to this because I recall worrying constantly about death for a stretch of my childhood, and it was very consuming. I also want to reassure him that we really have no reason to be worried about death in our family right now, but if (God forbid) something happened unexpectedly, I would never want him to feel I had lied to him. So complicated, isn’t it? Also, we are not religious, so we don’t have any default responses to what happens when we die. Any advice is much appreciated.
A Let me begin by reassuring you that it is very normal for children this age to begin to worry about death. And you sound as if you are highly attuned to your son and his feelings. I wish more parents cared about the interior worlds of their children. So, let’s make sense of this.
Although you don’t give your child’s exact age, I am guessing he is about 4. This is around the age that many children become aware of death.
All things being equal developmentally, a 4-year-old is just beginning to truly understand the finality of death. This can be terrifying because 4-year-olds are very attached to their family and having an identity with their family. What do I mean? Well, typical 2- and 3-year-olds say things such as, “This is MY mommy and MY daddy and MY doggy.” Sharing is hard, and preschoolers’ ownership of their family can be intense. This connection needs to be strong; can you imagine what preschoolers would do if they were not deeply connected to their caretakers? Healthy emotional maturation would not take place.
So, a 4-year-old is beginning to become his own little man. He is beginning to recognize more of his own impulses. He has opinions, and he likes to tell his parents about them. He wants to be heard and seen. He wants to matter, and he wants to matter to his caregivers.
Therefore, when someone dies in this preschooler’s orbit, the boy is shaken. “Wait. His grandfather died. My grandfather could die. My father could die. My mother could die. I COULD DIE.”
A preschooler (usually) has only a couple of adults in his life to whom he is deeply connected, his parents being the most obvious. He is going to feel his fears by way of priority of attachment. And while it is upsetting to hear that he is worried about dying, I am pleased he is telling you. Why? Because feelings that move out of the mind take up less space. So keep normalizing them.
Some children connect to the big idea of death quickly, and some children do not. The more sensitive the child, the more acutely the child is likely to feel the threat of death, and your son sounds quite sensitive.
How can you bring rest to this little boy? Begin by separating your own story from his fears. You state that you battled this same fear of death and that it was “consuming.” Your brain, without realizing, is attaching to his fears and saying: “Oh, boy, here we go. This is going to get real bad.” This kind of worry keeps our parenting mojo frantic, panicked, reactive and overly alert to bad stuff. Anything seemingly bad that you see from your son feeds your childhood story. It keeps going on an alarm and anxiety loop between you and your son. Not only does this hurt your son, but it also keeps you highly agitated.
Journaling, getting therapy, finding a good coach or walking with a friend who is a good listener can help you separate your story from your son’s story. And this will be a good practice for your whole life. If you are highly sensitive and your son is highly sensitive, you are likely to charge each other up with worries. You are responsible for your feelings and emotions, so go ahead and begin this practice now.
Another way we can bring rest to your son is to stop reassuring him that everyone is healthy and not going to die. While this is lovely and I pray remains the case, the truth is that we know that healthy people die.
Am I telling you to say to your preschooler: “Well, we could all die at any minute. Literally. ANY MINUTE. No matter how healthy we appear to be”?
I am simply saying you should refrain from giving him evidence to stop feeling his fear. When we constantly reassure someone to not feel an emotion, we are essentially saying: “Your feeling is not valid or wanted here. You are making me uncomfortable. Stop.”
In reality, he has a right to feel afraid. Death is scary, even for those who think that they know what is going to happen. Children never want to lose their parents. Even adult children. So, you can’t normalize his feeling of fear while also providing evidence that no one he loves will die soon. These two statements are in opposition to each other (especially in intention) and will only further confuse your young son.
I feel as though I am being hard on you, and I don’t want to be. I simply want you to “parent” a little less. Be less of a fixer and more of a listener. Be more of a mirror to him by reflecting his emotions, while also strongly saying: “No matter what, love never dies. My love for you never goes away.” Communicate more through presence than words. And yes, you can say that “our family is good and healthy,” but don’t expect him to hold fast to that.
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At washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for April 27.