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Last night my wife (as usual) was putting our 4.5yr-old baby girl to sleep. Our daughter becomes very chatty at that time and (especially in the presence of mom) expresses thoughts and things that happened during the day. Just then, our daughter told her mom that her eye is hurting her and if this a sign that she is going to die. My wife politely explained her that this is not the case. My daughter then asked if there are certain parts of the body that when they hurt mean she is going to die, and finally she said that she is afraid of death and she does not want to die.

2-3 days ago I had a discussion with my girl during playtime when she decided that one of her dolls is dead. I explained to her that if she (the doll) is dead, she'll never wake up again, and that is ok, because everybody eventually dies in the end, and this is the way of life.

Are those two events correlated? Was I too cynical? What should we do now?

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    Just an aside: in English, we don't typically call a 4.5 year old 'baby', generally children stop being babies when they start moving around (thus becoming 'toddlers'). – Benjol Nov 28 '11 at 11:44
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    Thanks a lot. Can you tell me at what age a toddler stops being called "toddler"? – xpanta Nov 28 '11 at 13:55
  • Haha! Excellent question, and difficult to find an answer to (just try searching for 'toddler stop'!). Wikipedia seems to think 3 years old. – Benjol Nov 28 '11 at 14:16
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    I don't want to die either. I'd say your little girl is perfectly normal. – JSBձոգչ Nov 28 '11 at 14:29
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    No it is not a duplicate. I have read this thread before asking mine. My question is not only on how to talk about death. The main idea is the fact that my kid expressed the fact that she is afraid of death. Talking about death comes as a side effect. – xpanta Nov 28 '11 at 19:55
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What should you do?

I don't have a scientifically proven answer - I just can tell you my experience, as we already have had many such conversations (even at an early age).

I think you should talk as openly as possible (and necessary) about death to her and you should show her (if possible) that it makes no sense to be afraid of death as it is (partly) beyond your control.

Our son started at 3.5 years old to worry about death, often stating that he did not want to die or that he did not want us (his parents) to die, as he does not want to be left "alone". (It began when he asked for his grand-grandparents, who died some years ago and whom he saw (with himself as a baby) on photos.)

He had some short phases where he was talking about death at least once or even several times a day. This was very, very touching and difficult for me.

What to say? I told him that we'll take care of ourselves as well as possible and that I hope we'll all live for a very long time. He said he wanted us to die after him - then I told him that mostly the parents die when their kids are already quite old and have their own families and children, so I hope he'll understand that this is typically quite far away from now.

He also had phases where it seemed to be interesting or even fascinating for him to "make" something (mostly animals) "dead" - this stopped quickly, fortunately. I explained to him that the smallest animals, just like himself, do want to live.

EDIT
Are the 2 events correlated? Most probably yes, but from your description it was your daughter who began making death a topic by letting her doll being dead.

  • Did you ask her first if she knows what "being dead" means or was your explanation the instantaneous reaction to her play?
    (In the latter case I'd consider it a bit hard, but asking if the child understands the words she used and then explaining or adding - where necessary and considering the child's age and "maturity" - what it really means, is absolutely appropriate IMHO.)

  • Has she ever had experience with death before (dead animals, dead relatives or acquaintances)?

  • Much thanks for your very good answer. Concerning the two bullets (a) It was my instantaneous reaction to her play. I can assure you that she didn't know what "being dead" means. She must have thought that "being dead" is similar to "being asleep" (b) She only had a minor experience with death before when a big wild bird attacked and decapitated our little yellow canary. Of course she wasn't there on the scene, but she learned afterwards what had happened. However, this took place last year. – xpanta Nov 28 '11 at 12:56
  • @xpanta - if it was your instantaneous reaction, it might have been a bit too "hard". The canary might be a good example to explain, as he is not there anymore since his "accident". – BBM Nov 28 '11 at 15:11
  • @xpanta I think BBM provided a very good answer. I just want to note that I don't think you were "too hard". If you said it with only 1 sentence and no further comments, then it would sound pretty cynical, but on the other hand it was also short and to the point, which is often a good way to answer. It's as a good starting point as any, I think. Anyway, the topic is one that requires several "talks" before it's clear. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 28 '11 at 19:19
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    To be honest I also quoted Steve Jobs' comment about death on his speech at Stanford (2005) where he said that "death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new." :) – xpanta Nov 28 '11 at 20:06
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I just wanted to share, I work in a hospital and one of my co-workers is a nursing student. This student was studying one day and randomly asked me what I think my daughters biggest fears are. I responded going to the dr. He replied ok so being in pain? Yep! I asked why? It's part of their curriculum and I asked him what it said about all ages, to which he replied: infants/toddlers fear of abandonment, children it was fear of pain/ death. So I wouldn't say entirely abnormal, some kids may be more afraid than others and need a little counseling to work through it. Kids are overly sensitive and take everything literal and sometimes need to be grounded or brought back down to earth.

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I remember very well how I dealt with death when I was a child. At first there was terror, because I had serious misconceptions about death. I thought I would still be concious, but unable to move and I feared the boredom and helplessness about that. I can't remember that my parents ever talked to me about that. But now that I am a parent on my own, I wish they had told me that I won't be concious and won't be feeling anymore. So the first thing I would do, is asking your daughter what she is afraid of the most. In a lot of cases you might be able to diminish her fears and remove frightening misconceptions about death.

To deal with the thought of death, I finally came up with my own beliefs that where far more pleasing than being unable to move while concious. I believed that death is just like sleep and that I will permanently live in a dream world. I believed that every dead being lives there, that the dream world is the home for all souls. These are kind of religious believes, although my parents are not religious at all.

So in case you are religious, it might be good to get into detail of your believes after death as most religions have pleasant views of it. If you are not religious, you can still help your child with explanations that make dead less fearable, like: After death is the same as it was before you where born. You don't remember it, you don't feel it, you don't perceive anything at all. You didn't suffer before you where born, did you?

I also knew as a child that old people are likely to die. I remember refusing to go to my grandmother for the weekend, although I loved her very much. I just feared she would die, while I was there. The thought hurt me a lot and it also hurt that I felt unable to visit her. This is also something my parents never even got to know, yet I remember it so vividly. I wished someone had told me, that it is very unlikely for her to die, because she wasn't sick at all and didn't have any age related diseases. (Sidenote: She is still alive and very healthy) So the problem was again a misconception: That all old people are highly likely to die at every given moment. This could have been resolved, if someone had talked to me about that.

  • "I thought I would still be concious, but unable to move" That would actually be very nice if that was true, because you can always revive someone as long as the mind is not broken (which is why cryogenic facilities often only freeze the brain). Anyway, I think this is weird: "To deal with the thought of death, I finally came up with my own beliefs that where far more pleasing than being unable to move while concious. I believed that death is just like sleep" Isn't not moving while still concious just light sleeping? How is that different then 🤔 – stommestack Jul 15 '17 at 22:44
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I am only an amateur sociologist, and this answer is not meant to supplant the existing answer(s).

Fear of death is caused by anxiety, specifically fear of separation from loved ones. Put another way, it is fear of (permanent) loss.

In children, the root causes are typically one of:

  • personal experience observing injury or death’s impact on people around them
  • a little too much truth in advertising about how scary the world can be

In the first instance, children become concerned when those around them become alarmed at things. For example, I have diabetes, and have at times had to go to the hospital. This was rightly stressful for my wife. However, my young daughter does not have context or knowledge to understand what is really happening beyond Daddy is in danger!!!!

It took a while to assure her (even in the hospital but afterwards as well) that I was okay, I wasn’t going to leave her, and I loved her. The simplest explanation, that I was just feeling really bad and the hospital was there to make me feel better, helped her (in reality I was not likely to die unless left untreated for a few days), but only because it was coming from people she trusted. The trauma she felt took a couple of months to leave her. This is normal. What mattered most was treating how she felt.

In the second case, children (as all people) have a basic need to feel safe and loved (antagonistic to fear of death/loss/etc). The trick is that children do not have the ability that we adults often take for granted — the ability to deal with scary stuff, like death and war and mass shootings and creepy clowns hiding in sewers with red balloons.

It has a physiological basis: their brains have not yet developed the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Things like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series do so well because it is age appropriate material for those whose brains just gained the ability to think logically about things and separate fact from fiction. In particular, they are at the age when they begin to learn how to deal with frightening things and (hopefully) overcome many of their fears.

Your daughter is still in the take-it-as-it-is-told-to-her stage, physically unable to really separate fact and fiction.

My recommendations are:

  • It is okay to be factual about things (like death), but remember that we first-world denizens have a remarkably safe and healthy lifestyle compared to all past civilizations.
  • Remember that fact and fiction are still blurred, so you don’t have to resolve the totality of a doll’s death. The doll’s death is itself fictional, so the doll being ‘alive’ five minutes from now is fine. Your daughter will figure things out herself in just a few years. (Enjoy the fun now. “Oh no! Is she dead again? Can she still play? No? Now she’s sad because she wants to have tea too.”)
  • When you (or she, or anyone) does experience injury, don’t minimize it, but don’t blow it out of proportion. A broken arm hurts like hell, but is almost never life-threatening. Remind your daughter that it will be okay, you and she and the doctor (and anyone else even tangentially relevant) are going to get it fixed, and you are always there for her while it still hurts.
  • And yes, avoid cynicism. It is not healthy for adults or children. Let your kids become cynical of their own free will when they are older. (And they are less likely to if you avoid it now.) I know this is a hard one to take, because, as adults, we see how unjust the world really is and often feel unfulfilled, unrecognized, etc. Which leads to my last recommendation:
  • Enjoy good and uplifting stuff with your daughter; make good memories. Teach her how to explore bushes for cool bugs, climb trees, fold origamis, read stories about princesses saving princes, fix pancakes, and so on. Be happy!

I know this has already gotten a little long, and I’m sure I left out something I thought important, but my wife and daughter are asking me to help decorate the tree right now, so then... I’m off.

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