I’m Dying Over Here: Talking to My Four Year Old About Death

I’m afraid of dying. I have been for most of my life. I remember being a child and worrying that my family might die in a car crash, a fire, an earthquake. It would keep me up at nights and I created mantras that I had to say every night because if I didn’t then SOMETHING BAD was going to happen.

I grew out of my mantras (most of the time) but I still regularly think about the finality of life, the fragility of it. I worry about what will happen to my kids if I die. I dread not getting to see them grow up and not having the chance to know them at each and every stage of their lives. It makes me desperately sad thinking that if I die soon they would barely remember me or (in the case of my infant son) not remember me at all.

Cue mantra:

I would really just like to grow old with my husband and watch my kids grow up. Please don’t let anything happen to us.

Thinking back to my childhood, I don’t think my parents really knew the extent of my fear of dying. I know I talked to them about it but I don’t really remember them hearing me.

Really hearing me.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never gotten over my fear, why it lingers in the background. I’m not incapacitated by it. I live. I go out. But it’s there…

A few months ago I was lying down with my four year old while she was going to sleep. I was telling her a story, as I often do, as we snuggled together in the dark. And then she said

“Mama, I need to tell you something.”

I stopped the story as asked her what she needed to tell me. Usually she needs to tell me that 2 of her fingers and 4 of her fingers equals 6 of her fingers. Or that she wants to have hot chocolate in the morning with her breakfast.

On that night she said:

“I don’t ever want you to die. I don’t ever want to be alone so I do not want you to die.”

My heart skipped a beat and tears flooded my eyes. My beautiful, tiny little girl was already starting to grapple with one of life’s most difficult questions.

I hugged her.

“I don’t want to die either. I want to be here and see you grow up.”

I wasn’t really prepared. I had not thought through conversations about death yet. I had no idea she was processing the fact that life will end one day.

She didn’t talk about it more that night but over the next few weeks it grew into a big conversation.

It shifted from “I don’t want you to die” to “I don’t want to die”.

We talked about how all living things die eventually. That one of the properties of being alive is dying. We talked about probabilities. That she is very unlikely to die anytime soon because she is so young. We talked about what being dead means: that our bodies no longer work, that we don’t breathe anymore or eat or sleep or think.

We are not religious so we did not talk about heaven or an afterlife. I did tell her that I just don’t know exactly what happens after we die. No one does. That maybe our energies rejoin the universe and become part of the water and the air and the land and the wind. I’m not sure if I believe that or not but I like to think it might be true.

She was very emotional at times about not wanting to die. About not wanting me to die. Her anxieties reminded me of myself as a child. I would hold her and let her cry and told her I understood.

And then one day she just stopped talking about it. She stopped asking questions. She stopped telling me “please don’t die”.

I think she’s processed it fully, for now. Her four year old self had been heard:

She does not want to die, she does not want her Mama or her Dada or her brother to die. She wants to get really, really old with fuzzy white hair.

Every day I figure out a little bit more about how important it is to let our kids feel heard, really heard. If we don’t give them the space to feel heard those questions and emotions don’t go away, they just go deep. And they fester.

Because I still get a lump in my stomach when I think about death.

So hear me:

I don’t want to die. I don’t want my kids to die. Or my husband. Or my parents. Or my sister. Or her husband. Or their future kids.

I feel another mantra coming on….

I know my daughter isn’t done with the subject of death. We will talk about it again. I will listen and give her my thoughts. I will hug her and let her cry.

I will hear her.

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