Death, Tears, and Restful Sleep

December 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm (Attachment Parenting)

JJ has been asking many questions about death lately. I’m not sure what prompted this new interest, but he’ll often have a thought about dying “just pop into my head!” as he says, and he’ll proceed to ask lots of questions about it. When will we die? What is it like when you’re dead? Can you move? Can you even move one muscle just a tiny bit? Can you come back as a ghost or zombie? Will we never see each other again?

This is not just a game of a kid playing “what if,” or “let’s pretend”; his questions are serious and tearful. They start off quiet and thoughtful, and as they spill out, his lower lip beings to tremble. In no time, he is overwhelmed with sadness thinking about this difficult concept and crying, “I don’t want to die! I don’t even like to think about someone dying, because that just makes me so sad!”

I do my best to answer gently yet straightforwardly, though it is certainly no easy task. Death is a difficult, emotional topic, no matter if you’re 5 or 95. I know I cannot simply explain it away as I can when answering questions about cooking or the internet or the importance of brushing your teeth.

One day last week, his teary questions evolved into sobs. I didn’t have any concrete answers for my overwhelmed 5-year-old, so I told him that. And I held him. And I told him how difficult it is for anyone to think about losing someone they love. Death is scary. I stayed with JJ while he cried that afternoon. I listened to his tears and fears. I accepted his uncertainties and sadness. It was an emotional day for him.

What I didn’t do was try to make it “go away.” I didn’t try to change the subject or cheer him up. I think that, often, we want to put an end to unpleasant feelings; our own, our children’s, or anyone’s. We want to squelch our sadness and replace it with happiness and only focus on “the good stuff.” But really, life isn’t all good stuff, and it’s important to be able to handle that. For me, this means teaching my kids that their feelings are OK; all of them, even the unpleasant ones. In this instance of JJ exploring his fears about death, I think it was more important for him to feel than to suppress or ignore or pretend that death isn’t something to worry about. So that is what we did; JJ felt and I let him embrace that. My role was simply to be present for him for as long as it took that afternoon. He cried a long time.

That night was the first night in a long time that he hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night to come join us for snuggles. He slept the whole night in his bed and woke up in the morning saying, “Mom, I slept great!”

Was it a coincidence that this happened on a day when he had a huge emotional release regarding his fears about death? My instinct tells me no; that JJ slept soundly because for once in a long time he wasn’t holding on to any stresses, worries, or unresolved feelings from the day. Does he have answers that satisfy his curiosity about death? Not at all. But he does have an increased acceptance of that uncertainty, which is an important step in maturity. Death is confusing and sad and scary. And on that tearful afternoon, what I needed to communicate most to my son, and what he needed to experience most right then, was that those thoughts are OK. It’s OK to feel.


  1. tinyheartbeat said,

    Thank you for sharing this, it’s been so helpful, my 3, nearly 4 yo boy is full of questions about death. He keeps saying, I don’t want you and Daddy to die. I also believe that it’s important not to gloss over the truth with lies. I told him every body dies eventually but not for a very long time. This still upset him. The temptation to sooth him by saying ‘don’t worry, Mom and Dad won’t die’ is huge but I think your approach is spot on.

  2. Bonnie Harris said,

    Kelly – I believe you are doing just the right thing. And in allowing his feelings, unpleasant though they are, you are helping him develop resilience. Death is a hard subject. My daughter “got it” before she turned three! Really difficult – but I didn’t lie to her and tell her I would never die and so she wept from the depths of her soul. She had a hard time reconciling the whole issue for a long time but she knew she could always talk about anything and get the truth. Kudos to you for hanging in there and not trying to make the hard stuff go away.

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