How to Explain Death to Your Four-Year Old


How old was your child when she asked you about ‘death’?

My curious four-year old, currently has a preoccupation with mortality. The words ‘dead and killed’ have featured in several conversations recently. Some of the themes of our more recent conversations include – run over rats, dead dragonflies, and squished snails among other things.  My husband and I felt that when the time was ‘right’, we would have a conversation with her about death and mortality and what it meant. But, her recent insistence put us on the spot. Here’s what happened –

Our family fosters animals whenever we can. Most find loving homes and some pass away. Last month we rescued a 25-day old puppy who was wandering on the main road near our home. We named her Buttercup because she reminded us of something warm and delicate. We fostered her for three weeks and found her a wonderful home. But, she got very sick and passed away. For a while we didn’t tell our daughter what had happened and avoided the conversation. But, she kept asking me about the puppy and would talk about Buttercup all the time to strangers who would in turn enquire about the puppy, leaving me with a lot of ‘hush explaining to do’.

So a few days ago, I sat my daughter down and I told her that Buttercup died. She got sick and passed away. She was quiet for a few minutes, and then said “Maybe, we can take her to the doctor?” Ah, the dilemma of time for a four year old – I explained that ‘died’ means she is not coming back. Then, she says. “Can we go see her?” I said “No”. I also told her that died means that Buttercup has gone to a place that she will not come back from.  I was just about ready to leave, since she lost interest and continued colouring – when she said “Mummy does Buttercup live here (pointing to her heart)”, I said “Yes”. That’s where she lives now.  I am not sure if she fully assimilated the idea of death or mortality, but she hasn’t asked me about the puppy since.  I don’t know if she is sad, or what her sadness even means to her – but I do know that these are hard conversations and one that I will have to have several times over with her– death needn’t be a morbid or frightening thing.

My husband and I have lengthy conversations about what we want our child to understand about the ideas of death and the natural order of things. We embrace the things we were taught as children that have benefited our development, and also think critically about what hindered our understanding of the world. Maybe if we look at the subject from the heart, we will find honest answers.