"What will happen when I die, mom?" my child asks me frequently.
Ever since she first understood the topic existed, one of my daughters has been mildly obsessed with understanding death. Focused on her own experience she asks me things like, “When will I die, mom?” and “What’s going to happen to me?”
Of course I know this is a normal topic of concern for a child her age, and I researched articles from trusted connected parenting sources. I followed their advice, explaining that people usually live a very long time and that she will too. We talked about it not being like sleeping. We talked about it not hurting. We told her she would be safe. We talked about how all things have a lifetime. We explained the circle of life. We considered it from every imaginable angle as directed by her questions. I cautiously explained some of my own spiritual ideas, careful not to be manipulative or controlling.
But replies like this didn’t really satisfy her. She seemed already aware of the reality that death was out of our control. It scared her, which has been hard for me to accept. I questioned if I was really doing the right thing by not denying my limited knowledge.
Am I doing something wrong if I have a child who is struggling with such intense fear?
Should I have given her a more specific and matter of fact answer so she would feel better?
The other night I was lying with her at bedtime and she brought it up quietly, almost sing songy, “Moooom, I’m afraid of dyyyying…” I pulled her close, trying with all my heart to give her reassurance. Looking deeply into her eyes, I said, “Sweetie, I hear you and I’m so glad you told me. Do you want to talk about it?” She nodded and her eyes filled with tears. “I feel scared of it deep down inside my heart.” she explained.
As we snuggled, I listened to her tears and it suddenly hit me. What if this wasn’t actually about dying after all, per se? What if this was about feeling fear? What if my role was not to answer her questions, but to help her face her fears?
I considered what I've learned about fear in the past few years: that feelings can not hurt us, that we are designed to struggle, that painful feelings don’t last long once we give them permission to surface and that fear usually shows up as a protective element when we feel under-resourced.
Fear is not a fact, as much as it seems like one.
What if I could support my daughter and give her permission to feel afraid?
“Honey,” I said quietly, “I wish I had all the answers for you, but its true, I don’t really know exactly what happens when we die." I paused, "But there is one thing I do know for sure." “What?” she replied. “The one thing I know is absolutely true is this: no matter how scary this feels, you are strong enough to face it. You are brave enough to feel it. You are smart enough to listen to your feelings. You will make it through these feelings and I will stay with you to help you as long as you need.”
At that, she started crying. I watched her face tighten up as she let the painful feelings surge through her. Then I noticed that my other two kids were also crying from their nearby beds. We all surrendered and released our tears together.
What happened next surprised me. After several short moments of deep sobbing, everyone started giggling. Suddenly we could not contain our laughter and delight. We guffawed and roared our relief loudly.
Isn't that just the most perfect metaphor?
First, we faced our fears by feeling our painful feelings and then we were all transformed as the emotional floodgates opened up to incredible joy, flow, and safety.
As we feel fears, we are not destroyed by them, but instead we are transfigured by them.
And that, actually, is exactly what I think dying will be like. Maybe we can know a little bit of what it's like after all.
Every time we stand, knees knocking, to face what seems unbearable, we will be surprised and gifted with a release and a new space for greater joy. It reminds me of riding a roller coaster: the unbearable part only lasts a few moments and then suddenly, it releases and the burden is gone.
I deeply enjoyed that moment on the top bunk, transported with my children to a light, connected, joyful and peaceful communion. Some might have called it heaven.
My daughter looked at me with new eyes, still brimming with tears, but with a touch of certainty unlike before, and I said to her, “I knew you could do it, darling. And I know you still can. I believe in you.”
Overcoming emotional fear is possible, but it's not something we can do alone.
As a person who is recovering from emotional and relational trauma, I’ve faced my fair share of frightening feelings throughout the healing process and it has only brought me greater joy and emotional spaciousness. Things that used to upset me and bring me anxiety no longer bother me now that I've released the underlying archaic traumas that perpetuated those cycles.
If that sounds like something you want too, I can help!
I help my clients safely face feelings that have grown larger than life by supporting them and giving them tools to discover the important messages underneath the feelings.
I also help parents and children face their fears by teaching connection, mindful and attachment based methods. Visit my parenting page for more details about parenting support.
Have questions about what my help might look like for you? Let’s talk! All consultations are free. Contact me here.
You are not too much. Your feelings deserve to be heard.
I hope to hear from you soon.