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Mama Drama: Distressed About Death

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Dear Mama Drama:

My 3 1/2 daughter has become very anxious about death. Long story short, we got fish and 2 of them died. I nearly didn’t tell her and just replaced the fish, but decided it might be a good life lesson.

Now she is worried about me dying and I haven’t found a way to make her feel better about the situation. She doesn’t seem too traumatized about the fish anymore, but is worried about the people in her life

Do you have any ideas or book suggestions that I can use to address her anxiety? I need it too…it is very disconcerting when she looks at me and says “you’re going to die at some point, Mommy.”

~Distressed Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Distressed:
I am glad you told her the truth about the fish. It’s a good place to start the conversation about death with preschool age children. The fact that she says that you are also going to die someday, even though it’s hard to hear, means she really understands on some level. Next comes working with her (and yourself) to not be afraid of that fact.

Our children often tell us they don’t ever want us to die. It is a natural instinct to tell them we’ll never leave them or avoid the conversation altogether. But death is a part of life and, as your fish demonstrated, will show up when you least expect it. Having conversations about death before there is a huge emotional issue attached to it can help both of you feel more accepting and less anxious about death.

Be honest. When your daughter says, “you’re going to die at some point, Mommy,” respond honestly. “You’re right. We will all die sometime, but we hope it will be later than sooner.”  Use it as an opportunity to talk about enjoying the time we do have together instead of worrying about when we won’t. It is also a good reinforcer for being thoughtful about how we treat each other everyday.

If she hasn’t already, your daughter will eventually ask what happens after you die. Think about how you want to respond ahead of time. If you are prepared for the conversation, you’ll feel more comfortable when she does ask. Tell her about your own beliefs as simply as you can. I also encourage parents to share beliefs of people in different cultures and religions. This helps children to honor and value the beliefs of all people and to have options for understanding death.

Books are a wonderful way to address the topic of death. The Fall of Freddy the Leaf is a lovely metaphor describing the cycle of a leaf’s life through the seasons. Gentle Willow demonstrates the issues of aging and illness. The Goodbye Boat is a beautiful picture book and Everett Anderson’s Goodbye helps to understand the emotions associated with the grief cycle. While it isn’t a book ,the circle of life scene from The Lion King is also a good lesson.

Trust your gut as you talk with your daughter, be honest, and don’t be afraid to say you that don’t know. Let her know you do the best you can to take care of yourself and be safe, but yes, everyone will die and none of us know when it is our time. Having a plan for who will care for you kids if something happens to you before they are grown can also help you both feel more comfortable.

For more information specifically related to telling a child about a family member who is dying, please read the Mama Drama post Discussing Death and Dying.

Please share your thoughts or resources about death and dying.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to, and your Mama Drama could be in our next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson March 16, 2012

    My kids have not had anything die yet so don’t know the realities of it. That said, my daughter has always casually talked about my death. I.e. Me: I can’t wait for your wedding! Her: If you’re still alive.

    So ummm yeah. How am I supposed to respond to THAT?! 🙂

    • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith March 16, 2012

      Maybe she just means she’ll be waiting til she’s say…50 to get married. 🙂

  • comment avatar Amy March 16, 2012

    My grandpa just passed away last month. I was very close to him. My 3 year old and I flew out to his funeral and attended the viewing, funeral etc. In the best way I knew how I explained that he was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up again.

    • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith March 16, 2012

      I’m sorry for your loss, Amy. It can be hard to figure out what to say that a three year old can understand when you haven’t faced that situation before and you are dealing with your own grief. I do, however, agree with Gretchen, below, that this can end up feeling scary for children.

      Hopefully, your child is doing okay with this and doesn’t have any fears about going to sleep. As you continue your discussions of death and dying and talk about your grandpa’s life you can begin to reframe what death means in a simple yet factual way.

      Best wishes to you.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White March 16, 2012

    All my kids’ great-grandparents have passed away. My older kids remember them, my younger kids do not. It helps everyone to talk about those lovely people, bringing up happy memories. We believe we will see them again someday. Parting is not forever. In fact, we’ll have forever with them. In the mean time, it’s okay to be sad and mournful because we miss them so very much.

    I think it’s important to be honest with kids about death. The body dying is final. It’s not going to sleep, because that implies waking again and it could also terrify a kid when he/she goes to sleep at night: “will I wake up?”

    Studies show that kids who deal with death early in life, confronting those emotions of grief, are better able to handle the shocks and blows of life in general as they age—especially when death comes knocking. Being insulated from death does nobody any favors because EVERYONE will confront it, inevitably. My MIL lost both of her parents before age 6 and was sent to live with distant relatives. She is a strong woman with a lot of love to give. I suspect much of the reason is because she knew from her youngest days what it means to lose, greatly.

    • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith March 16, 2012

      Thanks for your perspective and the research information, Gretchen. As you note it is important to allow the time to grieve as well as find ways to carry the person’s memory with us as we continue to live.

  • comment avatar Jaime Swartzendruber March 16, 2012

    I turn to books for all the tough stuff! However, death doesn’t seem to be too much of a concern for my kiddos (yet, thankfully)…Noelle (4 yrs.) pointed to a small patio set at the store recently and said, “I’ll buy that for me and Si when you and dad die.” Comforting.

    • comment avatar Lisa Vratny-Smith March 16, 2012

      Well, she did a great job letting you know she already understands that you will die at some point. 🙂
      Those are great lead ins to general conversations about death, so you don’t have to wait until the hard times come, and a good time to bring out those books!

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