- Many people have death anxiety because they assume their children would not be okay if they died.
- Thoughts are not facts and can be based on inaccurate assumptions. It is important to put these thoughts to the test.
- "Examining the evidence" is an activity that can be used to challenge the assumption that one's children would not be okay without them.
Most of us don’t look forward to the moment we draw our final breath. Why would we? It is human nature to want to remain alive. Thus, discomfort around death is normal. But for some people, the fear of death is so debilitating that it consumes them to the point that they have a difficult time enjoying the fact that they are alive right now.
People fear death for a variety of reasons
People with excessive death anxiety may have a variety of reasons for why they fear death. Some fear death because they worry about the dying process itself. Others fear death because they worry about what will happen to them after they die: that they will either not exist or go to hell. Still others are concerned about the loved ones they will leave behind. They assume that if they were to die, their children or other loved ones will suffer greatly and perhaps not even survive themselves.
The problem with our thoughts
Whatever the source of the anxiety around death, it is likely that it is based, at least in part, on inaccurate assumptions. We often assume our thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions are valid. However, the reality is that our thoughts are not facts. And they can easily be based on faulty logic or inaccurate assumptions. Therefore, it is important to put thoughts to the test.
Would your child be okay if you died?
Now, let me begin by validating this fear. Most parents, if not all of us, have worried at some point about what would happen to our kids if we were to die. This fear is understandable. But it does not mean that it is valid. It is possible that you are not considering all of the information and, therefore, underestimating your child’s ability to cope if you were to die. So, let’s try an exercise I have done many times with my health-anxious clients and those who fear death. It is called "examining the evidence." We will examine the evidence of your assumption that your child will not be okay if you were to die.
Examine the evidence
Assumption: My children will not be okay if I die.
Before we start, on a scale of 0-100, how much do you believe this thought? Write it down. First, we will look at all the evidence for the assumption that your child will not be okay. Then we will look at all of the evidence against the assumption that your child will not be okay. Next, we will go back to the for section and challenge or reframe any "evidence" for the thought that is inaccurate.
After you finish the activity, read through everything. Again, on a scale of 0-100 write down how much you now believe the thought, "my child will not be okay if I die." Even if the degree of belief was reduced by only 10 points, I would still call that a success. The process of changing our thinking takes time. Please see an example below of work I did with a client (note that information was tweaked in order to protect their confidentiality).
Evidence for the thought that my children will not be okay:
- If I die, my child will not have the comfort of a mother [Reframe: Yes, but there are many people in their lives that can fill this maternal role. They will also have the security of knowing how much I loved them.]
- I am the present, sensitive, and compassionate parent, and my spouse, Erick, can be non-present in his parenting style [Reframe: Erick is not good at being present-focused but he has improved over the years—plus there will be plenty of other family/friends that are extremely present and compassionate, such as my mom, siblings, friends, and in-laws.]
- I handle everything kid-related (holiday festivities, school prep, packing lunches, field trips, family outings) [Reframe: Erick and relatives would step up and do what needs to be done and even if they miss something, these are minor things in life and my kids won’t suffer.]
- I have heard or read about the struggle a child goes through after the loss of a parent [Reframe: Although it is likely that they would struggle if I died—any child would—this isn’t a permanent state of being. They would grow. My mom grew up without a dad and she struggled at times but ultimately had a great life.].
Evidence against the thought that my children will not be okay:
- My children are surrounded by people who love them, including my mom, siblings, best friend, and my husband’s family—a community of people.
- My kids have a ton of memories of me loving and caring for them. They also have countless videos, pictures, letters, cards that show how much I loved them—even when they forget or the memories fade. They will always know how much I loved them.
- I have a life insurance policy—if I died, Erick and the kids would have extra money to put away for college and to provide extra childcare to reduce Erick’s stress load.
- Even if I’m dead, my kids will still be alive and able to enjoy all the beautiful things in life.
- I have known lots of people (friends, family) who grew up with only one parent because of abandonment/divorce/death. All of these people are doing ok in life.
- Erick is a good father and loves our kids. He is protective and cares for them.
- Human resilience is an amazing thing—many people have survived and even thrived after a lot of traumatic things. There is a lot of reason to think my kids will be strong and resilient.
- My kids have grown up with love and in a healthy environment. They already know they are loved and are secure because of it. This would help them cope with losing me.
Examining the evidence can be extremely helpful because it allows us to take a bird’s eye view of a situation and see all of the facts together. It is likely that there are many factors that will help your children grow and thrive even if you weren’t around to support them. Keep in mind that the research in developmental psychology highlights that a child’s development is impacted by multiple risk and resilience factors. Losing a parent would not happen in a vacuum. Many other protective factors would help lead to positive developmental outcomes for your child.