Resources for dealing with kid anxiety about death?

My primary-aged kids, especially my 8-year-old, are showing signs of intense anxiety around disease and death. I’m looking for resources that can help them cope with this in a healthy way.

It is probably no surprise to anybody why they’d be dealing with this, but several factors have created a perfect storm in addition to the normal covid stuff:

1. I live in Melbourne, so we were in extreme lockdown for most of last year and are now in the middle of another long stretch with no immediate end in sight. This means many months of seeing nobody else in person except those of us in the same home, and the general sense (no matter how much we try to minimise it) that being around other people is not safe and that the world is a place of illness.

2. My dad has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and although I’ve tried to downplay that and not emphasise it overly much, his slow decline is increasingly apparent when we Skype every week.

3. Our cat died a month or two ago: a quick illness that came out of nowhere (probably cancer that we didn’t catch until it had spread everywhere). In the space of a few weeks the cat went from fine to dead. The kids weren’t super close to the cat, and I think we dealt as well as we could — had a little ceremony, talked about feelings of sadness, lots of cuddles etc — but it was still their first real experience of death and it was sudden and coincided right with beginning another lockdown.

4. My 8yo got an injury around this same time that was bad enough we had to take him in for possible tetanus shot/stitches. He has always been really anxious about health stuff (losing a tooth has caused him to faint) and ended up puking from the anxiety of it all. He’s now healed but it was pretty difficult for him.

All of this stuff has piled up, and with being in lockdown there is little respite. The problem is that the kids are very bright, bright enough to read the paper or overhear conversations or just absorb the general atmosphere of worry and stress that most of the world is in. We do our best to shield them and model good emotional skills — I’m in therapy myself (not for anxiety per se, but things that are closely related enough that I have a lot of techniques I’ve picked up). So I’ve told them about deep breathing and other techniques, try to talk about coronavirus in non-alarmist terms (and don’t dwell), etc., but it’s starting to feel like not enough. Both kids have complained about insomnia and have broken down crying at times saying they are worried about death. The 8yo has started asking repeatedly (multiple times per day per week) for assurance about bizarre things, like if the weed killer we put on our yard a month ago is going to make him sick, and I’m beginning to worry this is going to turn into something like OCD or agoraphobia or something if we don’t get a better handle on it. Just this evening — and the instigator of me writing this — he cried till almost the point of vomiting because, he said, he couldn’t make his brain stop thinking about dying.

Therapy is an option I’m not ruling out, but it’s lockdown and will be really hard for them to build a relationship to the point that they can trust someone over telehealth, especially given their general wariness of doctors. In any case it’s a more long-term option and right now I’m looking for more short-term things.

Both kids have very good metacognition, excellent reading skills, and are basically little scientists. For them, knowledge is power — the single thing that helped my 8yo the most just now was me explaining how strong immune systems are and how white blood cells can kill germs, and whenever he started getting distressed having him visualise his white blood cells killing any germs that came along.

So, my question. I would love any ideas you have for how to help address this anxiety — from little videos or books appropriate for kids (reading level between 2nd and 7th grade) to resources for me about things I could do to help… anything. Again keeping in mind that we’re in lockdown and going to be in lockdown for a while, and covid is not going away and the world is going to keep stressing about this.

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