On Dying

July 15, 2011 3:27 pm


It is 4 a.m. and we are in the middle of another all-nighter. I awake to the sound of sobbing and race down the hall toward him. He is curled up in the corner of his bed, rocking back and forth. He tells me again that he doesn’t want to die, that he is just laying there waiting to die. He asks how much longer we are going to be his mommy and daddy. When are we going to die too? He doesn’t want that either.

It’s enough to rip my heart right out of my chest. I try to comfort my baby boy but I can’t. Tears are streaming down my face too and I tell him he’s not going to die for a long, long time. Mommy and Daddy aren’t either. I sit there in the dark room with the sound of Graham sobbing and the gentle hum of the fan in the background. I rub his back and try to assure him that he is going to live a long, happy life. I tell him he has nothing to worry about. He eventually falls back asleep while my mind races. This scene is repeated in similar formats at least twice a week.

At four-and-a-half, my boy has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He worries about the “what if’s” and sees the bigger picture. Clearly, a thinker and I’m proud but I’m also scared shitless.  He’s too smart not to call my bluff on some of life’s bigger questions.

“Don’t put that checker in your mouth, Graham, it could get stuck in your throat.”

“Then what will happen?”

“I would have to help you get it out”

“What if you didn’t help me?”

“I would, I would help you get the checker out of your throat.”

“But what if you DIDN’T?”

“You wouldn’t be able to breathe.”

“Then what would happen?”

“Uh… ”

“What Mommy? What would happen if I couldn’t breathe and you didn’t help me? What? WHAT WHATTTTT?”

The simple answer never suffices, I always have to tell it like it is. And then he’s up at 2, 3, 4 a.m., worried about dying and thinking about the consequences of all of the dangerous things I’ve warned him about. He’s scared of a stranger taking him from his mommy and daddy, of a fire in the house where he won’t be able to get out, of being stuck underwater and not being able to breathe. The list goes on. I’m scared of all of these things for him but I dare not say it out loud.

The problem with these all night cry-fests is that we don’t have the answers to give him. He knows that we’re his mommy and daddy and it’s our job to keep him safe. We talk about the reason we have rules like holding a grownup’s hand in the parking lot and why it’s not ok to ever swim without a grownup present. We practice fire drills to make sure they know how to get out of the house if the real deal ever took place. We talk about all of the “what-if’s” for different situations and how to handle them, in hopes that preparedness will help ease his mind. It doesn’t.

Jamie and I are both Atheists. It is by no means something I’m ashamed of but it is also not something I shout from the rooftops. It makes people uncomfortable to hear our different opinion on religion and I try not to rub it in. But we also have a solid belief that we don’t believe and that is the way we choose to raise our family. This puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to Graham’s fears because I don’t have an answer to give him. I can’t tell him he will die and go to heaven and everything will be just peachy because I don’t believe that. There have been so many sleepless nights where I’ve wished I could just promise Graham an afterlife and get back to sleep but it’s just not that easy. And so, we read the Atheist parenting books to look for good suggestions. We try to practically prepare our kids for life without scarring them in the process. It hasn’t been easy. In the meantime, we alternate nights on the couch so we can be there to comfort them when they need it. Let’s hope they get through their fears before my back gives out completely.

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  1. Sheila

    I am so sorry you are going through this. Nothing to offer you except a virtual shoulder and hope for better sleep for all.

  2. Becky

    You know, we went through the exact same thing with Hank several months back, right at the same age. It is heartwrenching and there is no easy way. One thing that I tried to do was listen and correct any wrong ideas he had (for example, he thought you could wake up in your grave and be trapped, ugh) but other than that, we went with the reassuring him that we would all be here for a long long time. It is so hard. But he will get more accepting of the reality of it and he won’t be in this intense phase forever. Hugs to all of you.

  3. SuziCate

    My heart breaks for you. We went through a similar thing when our son was eight…he watched a tv show about the extiction of dinosaurs and was petrified his daddy was going to die because he was the oldest in our little family. It took a lot of time, patience, and love to get him out of fear. I wish I had some advice to help you out but it seems like we were at wits end when the fear was finally alleviated.

  4. MamaBadger

    Ugh, that’s a lot of stress for someone so little! Poor little guy. No great advice. All sorts on what to do after someone dies, but not before. Hope it’s just a stage.

  5. Anne

    That is a lot of anxiety for a little guy. I feel so badly for him (and you as well). Hopefully, as he gets older, he will be better able to manage his anxiety.

  6. Michele

    It has been quite a few years since I’ve been through this but I remember our boys waking up terrified. I called a friend’s father who was (retired not dead) a psychologist. His response was to not watch the news or scary shows while the kids were awake, to be very reassuring but on point and to not be too over-reactive about things. He also said that they would eventually grow out of it. Which they did but not before many a sleepless night.

  7. Pseudo


  8. Sprite's Keeper

    Wow, that’s a conundrum. I hope Graham feels more at ease soon. I think everyone goes through anxieties about the why’s. Sprite hasn’t hit that yet, but I did show her a mushroom growing in our front yard yesterday and then last night, she was terrified to go to sleep because the evil mushroom was going to get her. Sigh.

  9. Keely

    Aw, poor little man! I think all kids go through that phase to varying degrees, and I’m not sure the concepts of god or heaven reassure them any more than without. I hope the constant reassurance helps him soon and he gets through this phase.

    Now I feel the need to run off & teach Xander fire drills though.

  10. Captain Dumbass

    My oldest asked me if the world was going to end once. I said no, but then I quickly changed that and said yes, once our sun burns out but assured him that wouldn’t be for billion of years.

    Young children have no concept of time.

  11. Andrea

    Wow. The poor little guy. I’m reading a book for Thors anxiety but it might be worth a shot for you guys too. it’s about coping with fears and anxiety. It’s called Helping Your Anxious Child by Ronald M Rapee. The dr at Children’s Hospital recommended it. I hope that whatever you try it works. The poor kiddo.

  12. Stacy Uncorked

    Ohhhhhh you poor thing! And poor Graham! Rest assured, this too will pass – and long before your back gives out, I promise! 🙂 Princess Nagger went through the exact same thing at that age, too – she apparently pissed off the hubby, though, because she told him she’d be devastated if I died, but that if he died, she’d just get a new Dada. (I’m sorry, that still makes me giggle. Good thing my hubby doesn’t read the comments I leave elsewhere!) 🙂

    I think Princess Nagger’s over-obsession with the fear of death or dying lasted maybe at the most a month – so it truly is just a phase that will pass. Just give him lots and lots of extra hugs! You can give him a few from me, too! 🙂 And here’s one for you – ((HUGZ!)) 🙂

  13. VandyJ

    We just went through a bout of nightmares with Turbo–Zombies. I didn’t know how to get him over the fear, but in looking on line I came up with telling him to make the scary zombies sill or funny–big red noses, glue sticking their feet to the floor, purple puppies licking them all over–what ever he could think of to make then funny and not threatening.
    I know this doesn’t really work for the death thing, but it might be something to tuck in the back of your mind for the next round of scary dreams.

  14. bex

    Oh my. That is really intense. Being in ministry, our kids know a lot about death. We are often called to the bedside of someone dying. They lost a friend of theirs when she and Gabe were 3 years old. But it’s easy for us to talk about death, accept death (not always loss) – I can’t imagine being in your shoes as a parent. Although, my parents were agnostic and really wrestled with teaching me about death. So they just didn’t. Good for you for taking this on and not brushing it under the rug.

  15. Lizgizzy

    Oh- I’m so sorry you are going through this. Facing death is so hard. Our approach has been a little sideways. James’s G-ma died when he was two. About a year after she had passed and his speach was getting better, he’d randomly start talking to someone and it clearly wasn’t me. I’d ask him who he was talking to and he’d say g-ma, I’d ask him where she was and he’d frequently tell me that she was behind me or in a corner. He’d wonder why she didn’t answer him, and I’d tell him that she couldn’t because she’d died and didn’t have a body anymore, that she was visiting from the afterlife. I thought he was a little young to be making this up, and didn’t have the heart to try to change his mind. Luckily he hasn’t asked me any super pointed questions lately because I don’t know how I’d answer him given that we are also Athiests. I’m hoping that he doesn’t remember our earlier discussions.

  16. Cyndi at The Adventures of HarryJack

    Oh, sweetie, I feel your pain to a very small extent. I have a worrier who has a great memory – he used to sleep like a rock but I often find him fretting away in his bed. (I’d thank him for keeping it quiet, but then he’d start ruminating on THAT and the 99million options it entails) Have you ever read any of the Stinky Face books with him? Caution: lots of anxious questions from the kid in the story, but maybe it would be a fun way to defuse some of it ?? GL, girl, I do think it will get easier at some point, but maybe not since you actually care what is happening enough to do the hard work :hug:

  17. Zip n Tizzy

    I think part of what might be going on for him, is that while most kids can be told not to do something and they’re all, “uh-huh,uh-huh… I’m 4, I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” there are so many real dangers in his life (food wise,) that aren’t dangers for other kids he knows, that he really does understand what it means to be afraid of inanimate objects. That’s a lot of weight for a little guy. I don’t know what to suggest other than what you’re already doing, which is trying to figure out what all of those elements are and give him as normal a life as possible. I think over time as you create an environment that isn’t so toxic for him, his anxieties will let up, but it’s always going to be a tough one for him. Rather than focus on the death part, which is so abstract and more symbolic for him, focus on the fact that yes there are dangers that surround us, but that’s also why children have parents to protect them. Reassure him that he doesn’t need to be in charge of those things, that you and Jamie will take care of the big things and his only job is to be a kid and have fun. Then keep an eye on him around things like the checkers, but try not to comment on them. While most kids are desensitized to all the chatter we go on about as parents, you’ve got to give him the illusion that you’ve got it all covered. And you do – You’re doing great!

  18. Joanna

    Hi Casey! I found your blog from your comment on mine @ Drew’s Autism Diary. WOW, unbelievable how similar Drew seems to Graham. We are going through the exact thing regarding death. But, even more is the example conversation you posted. I mean, that is like word for word what Drew would say. What is that? Anxiety?

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