“Fear of the Dark”

As Halloween creeps up upon us, it seems appropriate to think about some of the real monsters we fear are lurking in the dark.  I’m not talking about Goblins, Witches, or even Vampires. I’m talking about the fears that exist after real, and often frightening, life events like the death of a loved one. Especially when children experience a death, insecurity and anxiety can affect their adjustment and overall well-being.  Understanding their needs, and providing healthy attention to their fears, can help them to face the “Monsters,” and find the confidence they need.

Often we want to protect our children and shelter them from the scary parts of life. We hover, accommodate, and over-protect in an effort to shelter them from harm. The most well intended caregivers can do such a good job that kids often don’t develop their own coping strategies and sense of strength towards facing problems.  Yes, life does have its dangers. Grieving children know that reality more than most. Still, there is a great benefit that comes from empowering them to face their fears.  This type of support far outweighs the effort needed to pretend we can shelter them from all danger.

So let us spend a moment talking about the fears that a Death often brings to the lives of grieving children…

Who will take care of me now? – Often the biggest fear for kids is who will provide for me if one of my loved ones has died. It seems self-centered, but children are really just looking for a sense of safety and protection. Allowing them to understand their support system, and who is looking out for them, provides reassurance.

What if you die too? – As caregivers we can’t deny that life is fragile and pretend we will never die. Being open about healthy lifestyles (“we wear seatbelts, use bike helmets, eat veggies, exercise, etc.”) lets kids know we are looking out for our health. But if their big fear is us not being there because we might also die, talk about their extended family, friends and others who are also looking out for them.

Am I alone? – Kids often report feeling alone, isolated and “different” after a loss. They often don’t want to be a burden for other family members who are sad, and may keep their feelings quiet. They also don’t want to stand out or be targeted or teased by others about the loss.  Helping them connect with others (including you) can help. Expand your support through family and friends where possible. Seek out support groups, social activities and other opportunities to feel connected to others.

What about scary things like funerals? – Kids can often handle more than we think, and should be invited to attend where it’s appropriate. Even going to a funeral can result in their feeling included and part of family support.  Many kids say they resent not being involved, or talked with honestly, after a death. Often, being open and honest about the death is far less scary then feeling left out.  Use words that are age appropriate when they ask questions, and prepare them for what is going to be seen if they choose to attend funerals and memorials.

We all experience anxiety, and have fears of the unknown. The death of a loved one challenges our sense of safety and our connection to others. It’s probably more frightening than any monster we can create in our head. The goal is not to avoid all dangers, but rather to be prepared when they come, and gain confidence from being able to face them.  Information is power, and a connection to others is safety making. So let’s talk with our children, honestly and openly. Help them feel connected when a loss makes them feel isolated.  It’s good for them, and for us as well.  Besides, being connected to each other is the best “Monster” spray you can get. Those monsters are really more afraid of us than you think.

– Peter  


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