The Death Question: When Your Child asks “Will you die?”

from the hand in hand blog(1)

Children become aware of death at a young age, sometimes younger than we’d expect or are comfortable with. So when your child asks “will you die?” it can be hard to deal with. Hand in Hand Instructor Anca Deaconu’s son first showed his concerns through play.

Child asking questions about death“We were having special time and I was his old cat, one that he was afraid might die soon,” she says.

Not long after that, he started to ask specific questions about my grandfather, who passed away and about a dog I used to have. Later, when I got stung by a bee, he expressed his fear openly.

“Will you die, mommy?

His questions haven’t stopped there. “Who would take care of me if I die,” he asks.

I tell him about the big, caring family that we are blessed with. I also mention the fact that I plan on being around for a long time and am actually actively working on that – it’s the reason we are careful about what we eat and why we spend so much time outdoors taking all those long walks, I tell him. These are things we do to help us lead long and healthy lives, I explain.

In her book, Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting ChallengesHand in Hand’s founder Patty Wipfler explains that avoiding children's fears can be counter-productive: It’s better to face them head on, she says.

“Complications occur when a child doesn’t have the support he needs to grieve until the hurt from separation is healed. Any leftover fears he carries are stored away, and they cause trouble down the line,” she says.

Children don’t need to have direct experience of death to wonder about it. The death of a friend’s pet can be significant to them, as can scenes they watch on TV Shows and cartoons, where shooting and ‘stick ‘em ups’ can be common themes.

Anca isn't really sure why he began asking questions, but she thought it might be a signal of change.

She started paying extra attention to all the things he was already doing by himself, building up his safety. “Each time he succeeded in independently accomplishing something, I made sure to notice and appreciate his effort and the outcome,” she says.

Another tool she used was to set empowering limits, showing him new skills he could achieve.

“I used to help him with his pyjamas before bed although he didn’t need me to. I decided to stop doing that,” she says.

“I would say,  ‘I would like you to try and put your PJ’s on by yourself, sweetie,” and I stayed close and lovingly listened to him while he cried and protested. I picked up the PJ’s when he threw them away while reassuring him. “I’ll be right here with you, while you try.”

After a few night's he accepted this change.

“I’ll get changed by myself,” he told me one evening,” she says.  “But would you at least come along so you can ADMIRE me?”

She was full of admiration for this wonderful boy, she says.  “For being brave enough to ask big questions and face his fears, and also for showing me that, even when I wanted to ‘fool time' and do things as if he was still my sweet little baby, he was ready for more.

“He is no longer small. He turned out to be this strong, independent, smart, capable young person who makes me so proud to call myself his mother,” she says.


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