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Child Afraid of Death - Asking About Heaven
Posted: 02 December 2008 09:06 PM   [ Ignore ]
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My son, seven years old, has been having a hard time. My father (his grandfather) died a few months ago, and one of our two little dogs died not long after that, making it very hard on my son. He keeps asking about death, and saying he’s afraid to die. He keeps asking me if Grandma is still OK, if she’s going to die soon too, and clinging to our other little dog and asking if he’s going to die.

I’ve been answering as honestly and gently as I can, and reassuring him that he won’t die until he is very, very old so there is no reason to worry about it. But many times, he just breaks into tears and says “There won’t be anything! It will be just BLACKNESS and I’ll be all ALONE! I’m afraid to be alone!” I try and gently tell him that we will live on in him, and he will live on in his children when he grows up and marries, etc. And that our loved ones live in our memories forever.

A friend said that if I just told him about heaven, I wouldn’t be traumatizing my child. He wouldn’t be afraid of darkness and loneliness anymore. She said I could “really mess up his head” by not telling him about heaven because he’d have no hope and no peace. I felt like a terrible mother.

In fact, most everyone I know with small children, they just tell them “grandma’s gone to heaven and is so happy now.” I felt so awful telling my son that his grandfather was “just peaceful” thinking it would be a good explanation, and end up having him still terrified of death several months later.

He asked me about heaven again recently. I said “Some people believe that when we die, our souls go to heaven with a god. Mommy and Daddy don’t believe that is true, but it’s OK for other people to believe it, if they want.” He started crying and said “I want it to be true! I want to go to heaven! I don’t want blackness and being alone when I die!” It broke my heart.

Has anyone else been through this with their small child after a death in the family? I’m reassuring him best I can, but he’s been bringing it up every couple of weeks for several months now. I’m not sure if he’s still in normal grieving process, or if he’s becoming too focused on death. I’m considering calling the pediatrician to ask her advice.

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Posted: 02 December 2008 09:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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He seems to think he will be alone in darkness, that is not the case. He will not exist at all, he needs to realize it is like going into a deep dreamless sleep and never waking up. I would not rule out having him see a psychiatrist if he is really having emotional problems.

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Posted: 02 December 2008 09:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Jules -  I think you have already done the right thing. You have not lied to your son. I think the worst will pass after another month or so when he has had time to adjust to the new situation.

When your son brings up the questions that are especially difficult to answer, see if you can steer him into more positive territory. He might have the ideas of blackness and aloneness because he’s envisioning being buried in the ground. (All alone and in the dark forever) Maybe you can replace that image with something more comforting. My grandson likes the idea of his body’s atoms being reabsorbed by the universe and traveling to other galaxies. He hasn’t figured out yet that those atoms don’t have eyes.

Heaven - don’t go there. Just remember that with heaven, you will eventually have the hell factor to deal with. Now THAT’S scary.

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Posted: 02 December 2008 09:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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danlhinz - 02 December 2008 09:37 PM

He seems to think he will be alone in darkness, that is not the case. He will not exist at all, he needs to realize it is like going into a deep dreamless sleep and never waking up. I would not rule out having him see a psychiatrist if he is really having emotional problems.

I would keep the word sleep out of the explanation. You may end up with a child who is afraid to sleep.
If you take him to see a psychiatrist, you will have to make sure he or she will support your beliefs (I don’t know which part of the country you live in) in a nonjudgmental way.

You can emphasize that your father will always be with him and you in your memories, thoughts, deeds and accomplishments, and perhaps show other family members who have died that he may not have known and tell him why you remember them and why they will always be a part of you. See if you can get him involved in making a ‘memory box’ to be sure to remember his grandfather and what an important place he had in his life.

Please accept my condolences. The death of a parent ( and for your mother losing her life partner) is a very difficult time of your life.

I hope some of this helps.

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Posted: 02 December 2008 10:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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asanta - 02 December 2008 09:54 PM
danlhinz - 02 December 2008 09:37 PM

He seems to think he will be alone in darkness, that is not the case. He will not exist at all, he needs to realize it is like going into a deep dreamless sleep and never waking up. I would not rule out having him see a psychiatrist if he is really having emotional problems.

I would keep the word sleep out of the explanation.

Good point sleep might not be a good idea, how about what it was like before they were born something like that.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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danlhinz - 02 December 2008 10:05 PM

Good point sleep might not be a good idea, how about what it was like before they were born something like that.

Yep that seems the best.

Not existing before we were born was no problem to us and it’s the same after we are dead.

Stephen

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Posted: 03 December 2008 05:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I used to have to mind a 6 year old boy, our neighbor’s kid. A few times I found him crying, the reason was always that he was worried that his mother would die (a bit different then your problem).

I told him that I understand that it is a worry. Then focused the conversation on being happy, I asked him would his mother be upset if he was always sad? how would his mother like him to spend the afternoon? how would his mother like him to leave his life? etc. His answers were always very simple and then I made him take part in some physical activity (e.g. playing hide and seek), this made him stop worrying and he would forget the issue. 

I did not see him for many years, the last time I spoke to him he was in the final phase of a medicine degree.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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TomTom - 03 December 2008 05:25 AM

I used to have to mind a 6 year old boy, our neighbor’s kid. A few times I found him crying, the reason was always that he was worried that his mother would die (a bit different then your problem).

I told him that I understand that it is a worry. Then focused the conversation on being happy, I asked him would his mother be upset if he was always sad? how would his mother like him to spend the afternoon? how would his mother like him to leave his life? etc. His answers were always very simple and then I made him take part in some physical activity (e.g. playing hide and seek), this made him stop worrying and he would forget the issue. 

I did not see him for many years, the last time I spoke to him he was in the final phase of a medicine degree.

Yes but I think a better out come would be for a child to learn that not existing will be alright and stop worrying about it for that reason.

Stephen

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Posted: 03 December 2008 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Maybe the idea that we will stop existing is too hard for the human condition, also I cannot say how easy it is for a 6 year to understand this.

The sad and humble truth about death, is that we humans only speculate on what happens.  No one really knows and maybe even the dead do not know.

With a young child I would try to guide his focus on living a full and active life.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 09:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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He started crying and said “I want it to be true! I want to go to heaven! I don’t want blackness and being alone when I die!”

And right there you have the explanation for the existence of religion.

I do not have children, so I cannot tell you what would or would not work. I do recall, quite vividly, my own fears of death as a small child. But here’s a possible approach to consider:

“Can you fly? No? But wouldn’t you like to be able to fly? Wouldn’t it be fun? But no, you can’t fly. Does this mean that life is terrible and that you should cry because you can’t fly?

Can you have your own pet dinosaur? No? But wouldn’t you like to have a pet dinosaur? Wouldn’t it be fun?...”

And so on and so forth.

It may take a lot of impossibilities to drive the point home. But a child, no matter how young, is already aware of the existence of limitations on his life, limitations that are not imposed by parents but are intrinsic to the nature of the universe. And the child has already made his peace with those limitations. If you can wedge death into that concept, then it becomes easier for the child to accept.

At the same time, there is simply no way to deny the huge emotional loss brought about by death. That’s one of the most important reasons for children to have pets: so that they can come to recognize the inevitability of death. I’ve had—I do not exaggerate—dozens of dogs and cats, and I still cry at every single death, and some of the losses still cause stabs of pain. I still cringe at the thought of any of them dying. So you somehow have to communicate the acceptance of death without denying the pain it causes.

The awareness of one’s own mortality is central to the human experience. Every person must eventually face it. My high school sweetheart came down with a deadly cancer and was given months to live. She went through years of suffering through experimental chemotherapies that caused intense pain. But today, forty years later, she is the most vivacious person I know, because she has seen death with a clarity that few people have. Ultimately, recognizing mortality gives you a love of life that makes you live your life more energetically.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 10:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Jules,

So sorry that you’re having to go through this. I agree with what’s already been said that talking about heaven, and essentially denying death “really” happens isn’t the best answer if that’s not what you believe. Of course, each child is different, so what works for one may not work for another. FWIW, my daughter (8 yrs old) has gone through the death of a classmate at school and one of our dogs, and our approach was to discuss it simply and directly, without a lot of heavy emotions. As already said, we didn’t exist before we were born, and that wasn’t scary, and we won’t exist after we die, so there’s nothing painful or scary to fear. We focused on how lucky we were to have known those who died, how death was an end to their suffering from being ill, and emphasized, as you have, how very very unlikely it is that she or we her parents will die for a loooong time. The subject comes up and goes away from time to time, but so far she seems to be accepting death as just a normal part of life, sad but not terrifying, which is what we’re aiming for.

I sometimes think too much explanation and discussion is harder for little kids than short, matter-of-fact, limited answers. Still, be assured you are not harming your child by refusing to offer a comfort you believe is a lie. My daughter cried every day for the first 4 days of school and pleaded with me not leave her, and that hurt. But I would have done her no good if I’d taken the fear away by keeping her out of school. You will do no good for you son by giving him a half-hearted fairy tale you don’t believe yourself for comfort. Just calmly keep comforting and re-assuring him as you have, and time will likely take care of the fears. And don’t be reluctant to seek help if it is disrupting his life in a significant way.

Good luck and take care.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 12:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Thanks for all the input, everyone. We’re really the only parents we know raising our child in a non-religious environment, so we feel sort of alone in this.

It’s been a few months since my father died, so I thought my son would be a little less upset now that some time has passed. But he has brought it up every couple of weeks all during this time, and that has me worried. However, with the holidays coming up, it’s been worse (as to be expected at holidays), since his grandfather always visited during christmas and brought many gifts. He has such fond memories. It’s going to be hard for all of us, but we’re staying cheerful and speaking of happy memories and good times.

I like the idea of making the “memory box” - my son can decorate it and put in photos of his grandfather, and maybe write letters and draw pictures about their times together and put them in the box. I will make that a project and do that with him. Good idea!

I’m going to keep him busy and stay positive, and continue firmly but gently telling him it’s OK, there is nothing to be afraid of, and hugging him when he starts getting upset. He’s such a sweetheart and such a good little boy. If he continues being upset a few weeks after these difficult first holidays without his grandfather, I’ll call his pediatrician to ask her advice. Poor little guy.

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Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.    - Lex Luthor

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Posted: 03 December 2008 01:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Jules - 03 December 2008 12:39 PM

But he has brought it up every couple of weeks all during this time, and that has me worried.

Actually, Jules, I would be more worried if your son didn’t talk about it at all. He questions and he fears; I don’t think there is much wrong with that. My kids went through a similar experience but eventually got over it. Unless he falls into a severe depression I don’t think you need to worry much. If you ever find out what makes one not to fear death let me know: death scares me to death.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Both of my son’s grandfathers died within a short period of each other when my oldest was 4. When the first one died, he kept asking my father if he (my father) was going to die too. We reassured him that he was not…..and then he did! Then he asked his grandmothers and I if we were going to die, and we tried to reassure him. I remember that he had bursts of grief for about a year, and I supported him in this and reassured him that I missed them as well and that it is our job to remember them and all of the things we loved about them, but….it takes time, a month is not long enough by far. He needs your support and understanding that his feelings are natural. When my husband and mother died a few years ago, I was still bursting into tears a month later. I was upset that my brother’s coworkers told him the; they were ‘in heaven with god’ fairytale (he has Downs and is functionally 4 yrs old) and it was impossible to counter. Three years later, his still occasionally cries for our mother, but he is much better. The memory book we made about her and telling stories about things she used to do does appear to help.

Your expectations of your son’s grief to be lessening after just a month is too much to ask of him,and you have not finished grieving yourself! Talk to your doctor or pediatrician about a session with a counselor (for yourself) to ask for guidelines on what to expect in your son’s grieving process,unless he is really ‘acting out’ he seems to be pretty normal to me.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 04:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Sorry, Asanta, I must have not been very clear. It’s been a few months - around six months. (I wouldn’t expect him to be done grieving in just one month.) Sorry I didn’t make that clear.

He’s not acting out or acting depressed, but he still has these episodes - even six months later - where something will trigger the memory of his grandfather’s death (even just passing a dead squirrel on the side of the road.) He’ll start crying again, and saying not only does he miss his grandfather but he’s very afraid of dying himself. I expect him to miss his grandfather deeply (I miss him terribly, too!) But I worry about his repeatedly mentioning that he is afraid of his own death.

I realize that a death in the family can make children question their own mortality, but I worry that six months later, he should feel more secure by now. I know the holidays are going to bring this all up again, when he doesn’t see his grandfather at Christmas. But if he is still having these episodes by the end of January, I may check with his pediatrician and/or seek a counselor for him.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 09:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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<*taking off my straw hat and sunglasses*>  <*reaching for my pediatric nursing hat*>  Jules, with the level of you concern, consulting with your personal health care professional, who has a longstanding relationship with both you and your son sounds like a good idea. We here on the form can only give you anecdotes, which of course is not the same as evidence, and we have the disadvantage of neither knowing your son, and most of us do not have a doctorate in psychology. Even then, a forum psychologist would not give professional advice without an ongoing relationship with the two of you.

My professional advice on this, is that based on the level of your concern, and the proximity of holidays that were a very integral part of your son’s relationship with his grandfather, that perhaps talking to a professional before it gets to close to the time that your son would have been spending a lot of time with your father.

Think of it as closing the gate BEFORE all of the cows get out. It’s a lot harder to round them up, than closing the gate.
Good luck.

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