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How to Explain Death to a 4 Year Old??? - Los Angeles,CA

Here's the thing... my Father in law was diagnosed with Cancer about a month and a half ago, its been quick, and we dont think he's got much time left... my 4 year old sees him all the time, he knows that he's not feeling well, since he's been weak... what do i do? Do i prepare him for it? do i just talk to him afterwards? what do i say??? i dont want him to be afraid, or afraid of being sick... has anyone dealt with this? Any advise welcome...

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I would find a good book (more concrete for a 4 year old!). Here is a reference site:

there are tons listed on amazon:


Good luck, never easy. My neighbors dad was just diagnosed with a brain tumor and they told the girls that any time with Papa right now is important and that means if Papa wants to eat cupcakes every day, that is what they will do!
(they are a bit older though)

Take care! So sorry!

The book "Lifetimes" by Bryan Mellonie. I used that as a preschool teacher to deal with family death and the death of classroom pets.

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Hi H.,
We have a 4-year-old daughter and are in a similar situation with my father-in-law, as well. He's just been diagnosed with leukemia.

Unfortunately, we also just lost my cousin about a month ago to breast cancer. She was 38 and left behind two young children and a husband. Right before she passed away, my daughter and I were able to visit her for several hours. My daughter knew that she was very, very sick and would die. We did not shield this from her because it is a natural process of life and important to learn. My cousin looked terrible, poor thing; no hair and her young face and body had aged terribly after fighting cancer for seven long years. This was a little scary for my daughter at first, but after we left she and I talked all about what caused her to look differently. We prayed for her and her family nightly before bedtime and talked a lot about it. My cousin died two weeks later. Our daughter attended the memorial with us and we still keep her sons and husband in our prayers -- and say hi to my cousin up in Heaven.

So, I guess my answer to you is yes, definitely prepare him for it. Start talking about it now, including your FIL in bedtime prayers if you do that nightly and start talking about the cycle of life. I think it's very important not to shield children from life's challenges, struggles and sadness. We must shape our children to be able to handle what life gives us and equip them with the tools to successfully navigate the emotional spectrum of life, too. I wish you much peace in this difficult time for your family.

2 moms found this helpful

I am very sorry to hear of your situation. I just dealt with the death of my father earlier this year and had to explain to my 2 year old why she would not see Grandpa anymore, whom she visited daily. I told her that Grandpa was very sick and that soon he was not going to be with us anymore. When he died I told her that he is in heaven and that we would not see him anymore and that in heaven he now feels better. I explained that we can talk with him and sing him songs anytime we want. A few times she asked when Grandpa was coming back from heaven and that she wanted to go to heaven because she missed him and wanted to see him. We talk of him often and look up to heaven and say hi. We have pictures around the house and say hi and goodnight to him sometimes. I would cry often and at 2, would say to me...it's okay mama granpa is in heaven now and he feels better, he can walk and buy things....anytime I seem sad she asks if I am sad about granpa, and i tell her I am always going to miss my daddy because I love him. Sometimes we will be in the car and she says, lets sing grandpa a song, she will look up and say this one is for you grandpa...and starts to sing. It was a very rough time but having her around made it almost impossible to be sad because she was always so cute and thoughful anytime I cried. My biggest suggestion if yor father in law is still alive is get video of him with your 4 year old maybe reading a book, then that is something he will have forever. I am sad that I do not have any video of my dad talking...that is what I miss the most not being able to see and hear him...I have plenty of pictures but hearing his voice is priceless. Video if you can. I must get a kleenex know as I can no longer see though my tears... I hope this helped. Just talk with him, it is amazing what they can comprehend....

1 mom found this helpful

I have been researching this recently because our 4 year old is asking a lot of death questions after over hearing that our friend was killed in a hit and run, and the one thing that was repeated was to never tell them that the deceased is "asleep" it will make them afraid to go to sleep. I was also told not to tell kids that death is what happens when you're old, then they worry about living grandparents. We just told her that sometimes when someone is very sick or very hurt that the body doesn't work anymore and the person is in their memories and pictures now but you just can't see them. We also told her that when someone dies it is o.k and normal to be sad and cry because you will miss them. I also told her that I was sad and cried when my friend died because I will miss him but I am happy that he isn't hurting any more.

Hi H. -

I am sorry to hear of your situation - it must be very hard.

I volunteered as a hospice volunteer for a few years and have found that, children are very aware of what's going on and that it's important to talk with them using honest but carefully chosen words to explain death and dying. The more a part of the life cycle it appears to them, and the more questions they get answered, the better they can adjust. One of your others responders is correct, adults can have a much harder time dealing with death than children.

As far as going into specifics about what happens when you die, this depends a lot on your spiritual and/or religious beliefs. In this regard I feel explaining what you think happens when someone dies in a pleasant way will probably be the most helpful because your child will be able to pick up on how your view death. You may also want to ask your child what he thinks happens, at age 4 they have picked up on a lot that we aren't always aware of (as I am sure you know!).

Recently my newly 3 year old son has had a LOT of questions about death lately and I explain to him that when we die our most special part of us, the part that has God in it, called our soul, goes all the way up to God, and he says, " welcome home!! I've missed you, now I will heal you!" and God helps that person heal and rest peacefully. I explain that our physical bodies stay here - kind-of like a shell. He always smiles when I tell him what will happen and seems satisfied.

I wish you all the best and will send prayers to you and your family during this difficult time.
A. L.

I don't have any experience on this subject but I have seen this topic come up here on Mamasource before. They always mentioned that there were books addressing this exact topic. See if you can search back though Mamasource, too.

Good luck with this very delicate situation.

I'm so sorry.

We went through a similar situation last January with my son and his great grandmother. She had pancreatic cancer and it was quite quick.

We told my son that great grandma was sick and that pretty soon she wouldn't be with us anymore. We told him that she would die and would be in heaven. Sadly, this is something my son has had to deal with a few times already even though he's only four. We lost our two baby girls two years ago and his baby cousin died a year ago.

When we lost our girls we talked to a therapist who said to be honest with our son. Not to say that anyone has gone to sleep, because they might fear going to sleep themselves. He's done remarkably well and talks about them often saying that his siters, his cousin and great grandma are all in heaven. He knows we will see them again someday, but that is hopefully very far away.

Good luck. It's never easy.


I would tell him after that he died. I wouldn't use terms like passed on.

Things to keep in mind, I learned from past experiences--dont mention the hospital, because when they need ear tubes they'll think they are going to die. and dont say he got sick and died. I used the old thing. Saying they were really old, 20 is old to a 4 yr old, no one lives forever. Daddy is really sad because he loved his father alot. I am sorry your family needs to go through this.

My mother recently passed away in October. Up until a couple of months prior to her death, I had been caring for her so my 5 and 6-year old children were quite close with her. I think they always had the sense that she was not completely well because of the fact that I did have to care for her but, after we had to place her in a nursing home, when we went for visits, I explained to my children that her body was just wearing out and that she will eventually go to heaven. To simplify matters -- and because I am not overly religious -- I just explained to them that when you die, you become like the air; you can't see it but you know it's there and, if you are still enough, you can also feel it and hear it and that's how we know that although grandma went to the place where grandmas aren't sick anymore, she is still near to us. They seemed to accept this explanation pretty well. In all honesty, I think children handle issues of death a lot better than us adults do, but they do take there emotional cues from us so far so, show them that it's okay to be sad because you miss their grandfather but, at the same time, try to stay strong and emotionally stable for their sake.

Sending you prayers to you and your family that all will be okay even if it is not. Take care.

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