My daughter is 13, and terrified of death. I'm Christian, and I believe there is a heaven, but she isn't religious- according to her, she's tried, but can't make herself Believe in anything. At first, I thought she was afraid that she would still be conscious, and just be unable to move in a void of darkness, and I tried comforting her by telling her it would be like before she was born, that she just wouldn't feel, and she wouldn't mind being dead. She started crying- apparently, she'd thought of that herself, and not being able to be aware scared her even more. She's constantly trying to distract herself so she doesn't think about it, and is always reluctant to go to school, because she can't focus on the teachers, and her mind wanders down that path. It's to the point, where she sometimes refuses to shower, because with nothing else to distract, she thinks about death and how inevitable everything is. What should I do to comfort her?
I had this problem when I was 8 and still kind of do. I'm not religious like her, and my mom is religious (buddism) like you. (sorta)
The scariest part of death for me when I was that young was, I'll be there to comfort my parents when they die, but who would be there to comfort me? I was the youngest in my family, so I always felt like I'd die last. It didn't really help that I didn't really have any friends. Talking to my mom about this didn't really help, because she is religious too and all she would ever tell me is I'd get reincarnated. (but it also didn't help that I read in a textbook at 8-10 years old that the sun would eventually expand and swallow the earth and then even reincarnation didn't matter...). Is she afraid of being alone when she dies? (I'm not sure if you can ask her this, but can you tell without asking?)
It used to keep me up at night for hours, and the only way I ever got rid of the fear temporarily enough to go to sleep was by either watching TV or playing video games (my comfort activities back then) Does she have anything like this? Maybe she likes to read? Or likes to watch a favorite movies? Just full on try to forget about it.
But if you can find a way to word this better, I'd try to tell her this, or let her realize it herself: Everyone eventually dies, but that's why it's important to have fun and make the most of your life while you're alive. Do you have a favorite book? What if you learned how to write and worked hard to write a story that touches the hearts of others like this one did for you? Or a favorite movie? You could be an actor, director or screenwriter, or just the special effects / make up artist! Maybe instead, you might want to help invent a cool new gadget or research a cure for some disease. Or do you play any sports? join a team and start training. Do you like video games? learn to program! Or maybe learn to draw and become a character designer for video games. Maybe you don't want any of that and just want to grow up and have a family, and work a stable job. That's cool too. (Maybe all she wants is some meaning to her life, some goal. Give her a goal to work to instead of just ... DEATH at the end. It doesn't have to be only death. It can be success too!! )
Maybe after you die, you'll no longer be able to read your favorite book or play your favorite game or talk to anybody, but that's why it's important to do all those things and have fun while you're alive. Try not to spend your precious time worrying about death. You can only have fun now! You don't know about after.
At least this is how I try to keep going.
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).
I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged -- the same house, the same people -- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.”
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
This is not uncommon
This is actually not particularly uncommon, even in children. Even now that I am an adult, I still have a fear of death. I am not religious, but just the idea that death is not only inevitable but is pure oblivion, not even nothingness (which one can still be aware of), is freaky beyond belief. If I spend more than a few seconds thinking about it, and try to let the concept of complete oblivion sink in, I start to feel a sense of panic that paralyzes my thoughts and prevents me from thinking about it until I calm down. So I can certainly relate to her fear.
One thing helped me the most, which was learning that I am not scared of death, I am scared of the unknown. I am scared of the incomprehensible. Yes, I know what will happen, and I know what it is, but I cannot wrap my head around it. The concept of oblivion is not something the human brain is capable of imagining. But when I found out that, as people age, their fear of death is lesser, I was greatly relieved. Knowing that there is a good chance that, as death begins to loom, I will not be afraid, was a major emotional boost. Ask her if she would still be afraid now even if she knows that, in the future, she will no longer be afraid.
I suggest you try to find out what it is about death scares her. Is it the concept of oblivion? Is it the idea that it may hurt? Is it the idea that you will not be able to do things you once enjoyed? Finding out what it is she fears exactly is important.
If the fear is that of oblivion (which is at least a big part of it, given the reaction she gave when you told her she would not be aware), helping her realize that it's nothing you haven't experienced before may help. Not just telling her, but really helping her understand. A famous quote from Mark Twain is "I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit".
If the fear is that of pain, it may be helpful to explain that death does not need to be painful. Accidental deaths from injury are rare, and medical science is improving constantly to make things safer. Even as you age, the pain comes from being old, not from dying, and is fully manageable.
If the fear is being unable to do things you once enjoyed, tell her that the only reason she would be upset about that is if she was aware of it. If death were nothingness, this would be pure agony. You would be able to think, but not feel, not communicate. While oblivion is a difficult concept, it can be comforting if one is afraid that they will be lonely. You can't lament death if you do not have a brain to lament with.
A paradoxical solution: memento mori
While it doesn't work for everyone, sometimes being mindful of death is comforting, in its own strange way. People prefer to suffer in company, and the one thing that all humans share across time, culture, gender, and race is the knowledge that they too will die. It's the one thing that is certain in life. There is a term for this, memento mori, which means "be mindful of death". A memento mori is any object or idea that reminds of us our own mortality. Some people even go so far as to have a wrist watch which counts down your estimated remaining lifespan! Memento mori can turn the fear of death into an almost spiritual concept, cultivating detachment from life:
Quod tu es, ego fui, quod ego sum, tu eris is a phrase inscribed on some grave stones. It means "I was what you are. What I am, you will be." This is pure desensitization.
Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat is a phrase engraved on the top of some clocks. It means "Every hour hurts, the last one kills". This comes from the idea that time is the ultimate killer of man.
Sadly, 21st century memento mori are far less creative or poetic:
Memento mori aren't for everyone, but it can greatly help desensitizing people by giving them the sense that it is something everyone suffers through. They are not alone.
I used to be the very same in my later teens. Studying science and watching Ancient Aliens uplifted that religious thing beneath me and quite similar to your daughter I started fearing death and the kinds. I gradually started turning into an atheist. Not that I go against the gods or something, it's just I started disbelieving the rituals we were performing and the after death discussions that we will be received in heaven and all.
My parents consulted a doctor, no use as even he stated all godly things. My uncle came to the rescue, the only atheist in the family until then. He taught me to feel the positivity in everything around us from the chirp of a bird to the blossoms and all. He then shifted my focus to meditation and visualising a light inside me with my eyes closed. The knowledge of spirituality got rid of those fears.
Being spiritual and being religious are two different things, get her to such a person. Don't take her to a father of the church or similar, she might get hurt. Take her to someone who doesn't believe in heaven and hell things, just one who understands positivity, spirituality and the kinds.
There are books on childhood anxiety that might help. LINK, I recommend this one The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears by Lawrence J. Cohen
Also, in the meantime do not tell she she is wrong or silly. Tell her the truth. Death is inevitable and happens to every living thing. Explain that she likely has a very long time to get used to the idea. Perhaps say you were scared when you were a child but that time has helped you get beyond the fear of being dead. (Mostly everyone is afraid of how they could possibly die. Try not to give her a new fear.)
Hugs, physical holding and deep pressure may help in the moment. Pressure has been found to calm irrational fears in livestock and people with communication and other issues, so it doesn't have to be explained.
Try schedules and a calm home. Schedules help children (everyone, really) to cope with a busy life. Try to reduce all the extra stuff that normally goes on. This is a time for quiet fun.
Meditation may help. There are plenty of places online to learn how, but I taught my developmentally challenged students to count or name things. Count to a comfortable number while breathing in. Hold for a comfortable number while holding your/her breath. Exhale for a comfortable number. My numbers are 8/10/5. Everyone has their own. I had kids that preferred the alphabet -- the idea is that the rote repetition cancels out everything else and you cannot make a mistake. Just keep trying. Start with 2-3 minutes and work your way up to where she is meditating for 5 or 10 minutes.
Medical intervention is a good idea. Personally, I think the earlier you address an issue, the faster and easier the 'fix'. Of course that will not always be true, but is does seem to be the best way to go.
Firstly I don't think you should force religion into her initially, as she should be able to have the free will to choose. You should say to her that humans don't actually know what happens before or after death. Thus it doesn't mean she would be in a void of nothingness, as in our universe around us, we haven't seen anything that's really nothing (I hope I'm right). If this still persists, then you might eventually have to introduce her to religion. Like you said, she tries to distract herself from this thought, so maybe something like your Christianity may help her (which is against my agnostic beliefs but apparently some people need this.) You can achieve this by making her go to Sunday church and possibly talk to the pastor and such to convince her of the positives of Christianity. This is so that she can believe that there's a heaven that exists and not having to worry about a void of nothingness after death. If she still insists to not be religious in which I understand, then all I can think of is talking to a psychologist.