How I explained death to my 4 year old


Recently, we experienced some “circle of life” events, namely death. (I’m telling you, Disney’s The Lion King helped take care of a lot of this conversation well before I even had to think about it, thank you Simba and Mufasa!)

I have always been really up front and factual with my kids about subjects considered uncomfortable or taboo.  They know where babies come from, they know I pushed them out of my vagina, and they know what a period is and what tampons are used for.  I have explained when Mama does not have a baby growing in my womb, every month I bleed from my vagina and a tampon keeps the blood from spilling onto Mama’s underwear.

I pride myself on being honest with them and they take this information in without any issue.  This is just a part of life, the same way they know dinosaurs are extinct and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty is not real. (Actually, they think tampons are like toys and want to carry them around the house.)

Explaining the death of an adult to my young child

We recently experienced the death of a dear friend and I needed to tell my 4 year old about it.  This close friend has been present for every single one of her birthdays, he’s been a part of my daughters’ lives before they were even a twinkle in my eye!  She knew our friend was ill and in the hospital, but when he passed, I wasn’t sure what to say.  I went back to the facts and said he didn’t get better after being in the hospital, his body stopped working and he was dead.  She had some follow-up questions:

4 year old: What happened?
Mama: When you die you close your eyes and your body never moves again. Never ever.  It’s like you are asleep, but you’ll never wake up again.
4 year old: Will I see him again?
Mama: No, you will not see him again.
4 year old: Where did he go?
Mama: People usually put their bodies in the ground after they die. Some people believe you go to heaven when you die.  Even though this body will never move again, I believe (placing my hand on her chest) the part that makes you special, what makes you you lives on and never dies.  It could even come back in another body (now I’m introducing my personal belief of having a soul and the possibility of reincarnation – which is my parental discretion).
4 year old: Mama, when I’m a grown-up, will you teach me to drive your car?
Mama <<slightly bewildered by the non-sequitur>>: Yes, Baby. Why do you want to drive my car?
4 year old: So I can drive to heaven.
Mama <<a-ha moment>>: Of course Baby.

The book by Marc Brown, “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death” was incredibly helpful and age appropriate.

Death of a baby

My best friend lost her baby during her pregnancy. It was tragic and heartbreaking. I needed to explain what happened to my daughter because she knew about the pregnancy and I do not like the idea of lying to my daughter and inadvertently making her question her own sanity by saying there never was any baby and her memory is incorrect.  So, again, I kept to the facts.

Mama: Do you remember Auntie had a baby in her belly?
4 year old: Yes.
Mama: The baby wasn’t strong enough to keep growing, so it died.
4 year old <<surprised look>>: What happened to her boy?! (Referencing her 4 year old son)
Mama: Oh, he’s still alive. He’s totally fine.
4 year old <<looking relieved, then sad>>: I want to make a card for Auntie. I want it to say, I’m sorry your baby isn’t here anymore, but I’m really happy your son is still here.  Draw a picture of a baby on the front.

As instructed, I drew a picture of a pink cartoon baby swaddled on the front. I was honestly really nervous to give the card to my bestie because she was feeling super raw and recovering physically, mentally and emotionally from the loss, but she cherishes the card.

Even in the darkest moments, you can find comfort in the sweet, innocent and heartfelt message about life and love from a little girl.

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2 thoughts on “How I explained death to my 4 year old”

  • What a wonderful base value you gave your daughter. Truth. Life is full of many unpleasant experiences, but when as a child your left to ‘figure it out’ on her own by her own limited understanding, a child makes wrong connections. And then those connections become beliefs. And she will live from those messed up beliefs. If a child can’t depend on a parent giving them the truth, then who can they trust. You did so much more then explain a common experience in life- you have given her the best foundational understanding that will help her for a life time- that you can trust your mother to tell you the truth with love and compassion.

    My father died in a drunk driving accident (he was drunk) when I was 5 years old. My parents were seperated at the time, so he was already not in the house. But my mother chose not to explain it in a loving and compassionate way to her three children. And I have witnessed the damage to all three of us in our relationship with her. We lacked trust in her and I fell it all started back at that pivotal point in this shared experience. But it also set up our abilities to trust others in our foundational understanding.

    Bravo on being a developer of healthy and supportive future adults.

    • Kym, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and personal story. I often think, “How would I want this to be explained to me if I were a little girl again?” and this forms the basis of my response to my kids tough questions. Oftentimes they only need the most simple and basic information and it’s our own bias layered on top which makes it a tough conversation when it does not have to be. Once I peel away my own opinion about something (like death is bad and something to be feared) it’s just stating the facts in a loving way so I don’t create confusion or fear.

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