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Q. "My daughter is 10 years old and feels that she is going to die at a young age. She believes that when she dies she will be all alone, and this frightens her. I have tried to talk with her about dying and I've told her that she won't be alone, but in heaven with other people. She has been to many funerals, so it's not as if she is unfamiliar with the concept. But this is not the first time she has had this feeling, so I am wondering if you have any suggestions on how I can help her overcome this fear."
A. When children are aged 3 to 8, their perception of the world is one of safety and security. They hear about horrific events, but they don't really grasp that bad things can happen to them. They feel secure in the belief that mommy and daddy will always be there to protect them. However, as a child's reasoning aptitude increases -- from ages 9 to 11 -- they soon come to learn that this belief isn't true. Around this time, children begin to understand that bad things can and do happen to people. They begin to make the connection that if bad things happen to other people, then they too are vulnerable, and it is this connection that often leads children to a period of worrying about their destiny. Children at this age have a concrete understanding of the possibility of death, but they don't realize that statistically the chances of something bad happening to them are slim.A Time of High Anxiety
During the recent war in Iraq many children expressed their fears about death and dying. Some were anxious about nuclear attacks on the United States, fears that were directly related to the war. However, other children developed disconnected fears that were stirred up by anxiety about the war. Some feared being stricken with cancer and related life-threatening illnesses. And with all the media coverage of recent child kidnappings, many children have fears about being stolen away from their families. When parents hear of these fears it can be unsettling. Most parents feel lousy because it means the harsh realities of the "real" world are seeping in and pulling the rug of innocence from beneath their child's feet, and there's not much a parent can do about it. As tough as it is, it's a necessary part of childhood.
It's not your job to talk your daughter out her fear of death and dying, but you can help her learn how to manage her fear. In this regard, using your faith and its beliefs on death and dying as a means for consoling her makes perfect sense. The faith-based response is probably one that she'll be able to process. Telling her (as you have done), "When you die you'll go to heaven and you be won't be alone, but with others," may give her some comfort. However, don't expect her to say, "Okay, I get it. Now I'm not worried any more." It will take her time to overcome this fear. You may think that avoiding the topic of death would be the best way to go, but it's not. You will help your daughter if you embrace the topic, and provide her with information to help her address any questions she has. You can also arm her with skills to help her feel safe in the world. Give her a whistle that she can wear around her neck during the day and keep by her bed at night. When she is frightened or feels in danger, teach her to blow the whistle. You can also enroll her in a self-defense class. Karate and similar martial arts classes help children build up their confidence and give them a sense of being self-sufficient. I would also suggest locating the book, Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child, by Earl A. Grollman (Beacon Press, 1991). Not only does this book nicely address the topic, but it's written so that parents and children can read it together. Eventually, your daughter will overcome her fear. Providing her with constructive information will empower her to overcome this fear on her own. Knowledge is power, and it's better to face this fear head on then to try to sweep it under the rug of childhood.