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

Updated on August 02, 2010
H.L. asks from Los Angeles, CA
18 answers

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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answers from San Diego on

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!



answers from Los Angeles on

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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answers from Los Angeles on

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


answers from Los Angeles on

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'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


answers from Los Angeles on

H., I'm sorry for what you are going through with FIL. I have been in your spot. When my girls were 6 and my MIL was told she had 6 months due to cancer. I was also going through breast cancer treatment myself. We had talked to the girls about cancer and what it meant in terms that they could understand. Also the hospice care gave us a book to use with the girls. It was hard for them but they understood that Grandma was going to heaven and would not be sick anymore and that we didn't know about mommy. Grandma died less than 3 weeks later and mommy is doing fine almost 6 years later. Yes you need to talk with your son in language that he understands. Don't have to get all fancy but you need to tell him Grandpa is sick and may die. Good luck, God bless.



answers from San Luis Obispo on

Dear H.,
here is how I've dealt with my son during the sickness and/or passing away situations: First I talked about the fact, that our bodies sometimes get very sick; too sick to recover. On many occassions with very ill family members and/or friends, I took my son with me when visiting the ill person. Telling my son always, how we can help the person experience some joy, even when we can't improve the illness. Then I explained, that the passing away is a part of our life cycle. We don't know, when the time will come. But we don't have to worry about it, and we don't have to be afraid of it.
Ever since my son was three years old (he is almost 13 now), he accompanied me to many hospitalized patients, as well as to funerals. By talking to him about these life events, he was able to understand them very well. I hope very much for you, that you'll find the right words for your four year old, so he can understand in what's happening with his grandfather. I recommend, that you and your son will visit as much as possible, even if it's only for a short duration. As your father in law's strengh declines, you'll be able to talk more about the time of passing getting closer to your son.
Many blessings and prayers to you and your family, during this difficult and heart aching time! With lots of love and family togetherness you'll be able to make it through.



answers from Los Angeles on

Our 7 year old friend died suddenly in the middle of the night and we drove 21 hours to Colorado to be with his family. I explained it to our son who 4 years old. He seemed ok with it. He asked a lot of questions. We answered them honestly....and for many, we had no difinitive answers. We asked him if he wanted to go to the viewing and explained what he would see....his friend's dead body in a box. We reassured him that his friend's soul was not there and that his body just didn't work anymore. He offered, Well, maybe God will give him another body that works." We smiled and just replied, "Maybe." I didn't want him freaked out when they lowered the casket into the ground and might wonder if his friend could breathe. He never wondered, so I guess we explained everything with facts...rather than with drama. While death can be devestating for some, I wanted my son to understand the severity/finality of death, without it being drama. He seemed ok with it and has asked questions still. We've been out to Colorado to see the family and to visit the grave site. He's allowed to mention JT's name and to ask questions and tell stories of things he remembers...and songs that they would sing together.

Most of it is about how you present it. Tell him now, so he has the chance to say his good-byes and hug on his grandfather. I lost my grandfather 20 years ago this past April and I still miss him and I wish that I had been allowed or felt like I could talk about it...but everyone was so distraught that no one would say anything....and I had to bottle everything up. I wanted to ask him if he was scared. I wanted to ask if he would miss me...because I would certainly miss him...but all of that was never said....nothing was....and then he died and we buried him, along with all of my questions. I hope my son is capable of dealing with death better than I was taught.

Freddie the Fallen Leaf by Leo Buscaglia is a great book for kids and adults to deal with death.

I'm sorry that you have to deal with this. My prayers go out to you and your family.



answers from Los Angeles on

Look for the book "The Fall of Freddy the Leaf"



answers from Grand Forks on

My husbands father passed away 8 months ago. 2 days after my sons 1st birthday. My daughter was almost 3 at the time. He passed suddenly and was only 47. We took the kids to the funeral and the wake and kept them involved. Eventhough they are young, they kept a nice peace and family wanted to see them. My daughter still remembers him and talks about him often. When we go visit his grave, she kneels down and talks to grandpa and kisses the ground. We told her he is sleeping for a very long time. She says hes sleeping in his bed. Its very hard to deal with, but my husband didnt want to shut the kids out, especially since my daughter and her grandpa were very close. I think a 4 year old should be able to understand that people leave and they dont come back. It is very hard though, but you need to tell him or he will keep asking where grandpa is. I wouldnt tell him until its closer to the time he passes, or it could cause more stress and little questions than you want.



answers from San Diego on

Hi H.,
I have three kids, and when they were 4, 2 and an infant I had to explain a family death to them.

What you decide to do is a completely personal decision, but I felt very strongly that I needed to prepare my kids. In my mind, the sudden disapearance of this person from their life would be a far more difficult and scary adjustment for my kids to make then giving them basics about the situation.

I explained that sometime soon this person will die. When they do there will be an event to say goodbye (a funeral in our case), followed by the burial. I believe there is life after death, and so it was a very positive discussion about how our spirits or souls carry on after our bodies die. When someone has died their spirits are already on their journey, so its not scary for them when their body is put in a box in the earth. This just helps us (the people left behind) be able to still visit them. I explained that we will miss this person because we won't see them for a while, but it's important that we talk about, remember and love the person who has died. Doing this will make us happy, and will also be felt by the spirit of the person who has died.

Of course, you may or may not have views on this, so take what is helpful to you and leave out the rest! Best wishes,



answers from Las Vegas on

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.



answers from Los Angeles on

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.



answers from Los Angeles on

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.



answers from Los Angeles on

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.



answers from Los Angeles on

Hi H.,
I'm so sorry to hear about your father in law- mine also passed away from cancer. My son was 2 and was too young to understand at the time. Unfortunately my nana, my sons great grandmother passed earlier this year. My son was very close to Nana and was sad when she "left". We explained to my son that Nana was in heaven now with Grandpa Joe and that even though we couldn't play with her here anymore that he could play with her in his dreams. She turns her nightlight on every night for us- a star and we get to talk to her every night. He has asked why Nana is an angle now and how long does she have to be an angle before she comes back. I try to explain to him that Nana is an angle now because she made sure that all of us were okay first and she did her job of taking care of us and playing with us and that even though she'll be an angle for ever, she will always be with us. He seems to understand a little bit, he too is 4, he still asks questions every once in a while but he loves to talk to her when the stars come out and he has told me he plays with her at night when he sleeps. It's very hard to explain to a 4 year old, but making sure that they know that their grandparents are always with them and they can talk to them whenever they want and they can play in their dreams helps. We keep pictures of both Nana and Grandpa Joe around the house for my son to talk too as well. I hope some of this helps!!!! You and your family are in my thoughts!
Take care,


answers from Los Angeles on

what to do with children in situations such as this is answer their questions fully and honestly. that way they are not confused and they understand. if they become confused or you dont tell them everything they will eventually figure it out and become resentful.
not telling the whole truth or even not saying anything at all is the same as telling them a lie.



answers from Los Angeles on

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.



answers from Saginaw on

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.

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