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How do I explain why our cat died to my 4yo?

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 

Today we found our 18yo cat. We think she passed away yesterday while we were out of town.  My 4yo is very sad, of course, and keeps asking us why Tabitha died.  I've been telling her that she was old and sick and it was her time, but I've stopped short of telling her everything dies because I don't want to scare her and don't want her to start worrying that Mommy & Daddy are going to die.


We let her see Tabitha and give her a final kiss and hug.


Now, how do I explain why she died? We aren't religious, so the whole heaven concept doesn't work for us.  I do believe that our souls are energy that still exists, but that's a tough concept for a 4yo (almost 5).


She does understand that Tabitha isn't coming back, but it's the "Why?" part she doesn't understand.  How do I explain that?

post #2 of 13

That's a tough one. I understand your reluctance to say she was old or sick, because grandparents are old, and everybody's sick sometimes....so you don't want her freaking out and worrying. I have no experience with this exact situation though.


She is young so she probably would accept a short & sweet answer.


How about "cats only usually live 18 years, so it was her time." If she says Why again after that, say well, cats' bodies aren't made to live much longer than that; maybe she had a part of her that stopped working."  (then if she asks how many years humans live, and you can honestly say that our bodies are made to live 80 to 100 years. I imagine that sounds like an eternity to a 4 year old and may put her mind to rest about all the humans she knows.)


I don't know....I have never had this conversation, so I hope all the experienced moms who are rolling their eyes at my answer can forgive my ignorance.



I mean, my son is 8 and our kitty died two years ago, but I don't remember ever having a difficult conversation. We just told the truth....we didn't know what happened to her (she died WAY too early, at age 8; even the vet was stumped); she died, we miss her, we buried her in the back yard and painted her name on a rock that we used to mark the grave; we had a little ceremony. You know, all gathering around to say good bye and express our love and toss a flower into the hole with her. (sob!) Maybe that provided some necessary closure?


Sorry about the loss of your cat. 



post #3 of 13

I really like the book LIfetimes.  It talks about how everything has a usual lifetime and then it dies.  That sounds terse and sad, but it isn't a sad book. 


Anyway, I don't think there is a better time for your DD to come to meet the idea that everything dies.  She may actually have figured this out, and is perhaps worried because you are not being open about it.  There is death all around us - dead bugs, road kill, elderly friends, etc. 


I understand your reluctance, but in the end, what makes 5yo any better than 4 for that sort of info?



post #4 of 13

personally, i think a 4 year old can handle it. all of it. mine did. we also lost our cat, who was 19, and my daughter was almost 4. we also lost our dog, who was 13, when she was 3. i explained it all to her, and she understood it. everybody dies, that's a fact of life, and i didn't have any problem explaining it or helping her understand it. 

post #5 of 13

well really she has asked a deep philosophical question.




i have no clue. and i would freely express that to my dd. i dont know why someone has to die but that is what life is. 


when they initially process death - it is always v. painful in the beginning as they try to deal with things. 


"i dont exactly know sweetheart why Tabitha died. she was old and remember how she was struggling to walk (or whatever the signs of old age is) and people usually die when they grow old. "


so if she asks well are you going to die, will gpa and gma die too? and you say "yes when their time comes they will die too"


what's the point in hiding if they have asked directly. i see saving them pain and hurt is doing a disservice to them. they are ripe at that time to deal with sadness. they are sad as they discover the world around them - but soon enough they discover - this is life.


i think death is a beautiful to discover pain and sadness. because as you suffer you also notice that these things go on in life. they mourn for a bit, figure out their own feelings and then recover. 


this is just the beginning. you will have a steady trail of different kinds of questions on death as your child ages. we covered cremation when dd was 4 years old as well as the mongolian way. 


with questions like this - stick to answering just the question not the flood of more information that comes rushing your way. 

post #6 of 13

MeeMee raises a good point. I firmly belief that a lot of the neurosis and pain that we go through in our adult years comes from the false information (or missing information) from our childhood. People are obviously trying to "protect" kids so they hide the fact of death, they don't let them attend funerals of loved ones, they make up euphemisms to describe where a dead loved one went, and on and on and on.


Then you get to adulthood and everything feels like an unfair shock to you. Not just with this issue but a whole host of other issues too. Death is treated like an aberration. It's not! It is sad, it is painful, we miss our loved ones and especially when they die at a time we don't like (i.e. "they died too soon") but the truth is nobody gets out of here alive. It's the way the system works! So the sooner the kids deal with the reality of that, the better. Yes, they will be sad, but they will survive, and learning to process huge feelings of sadness (rather than having them swept under the rug) is a valuable thing that will strengthen your child, actually. I think that not having information, or suspecting that you have been given half-truths or sugar-coated info, causes great anxiety. (BTW I am talking in generalities here, not directly to YOU about your child....I'm sort of complaining about how I was raised to not-deal with stuff, which just caused more problems later.)


I stick with my assertion: keep it short and sweet. Your kid wants to know why, you tell her why. In doing so, you're indirectly assuring her of something she is NOT verbally asking, which is, "Momma, are you going to be honest with me? Momma, can I trust you to handle this? Is everything going to be OK?"


I liked my answer "cats' bodies aren't made to last much more than 18 years. (it's true; the range is, I think 16 or so for domestic cats and 20 for the siamese and similar breeds) Because it's true. Cats have a certain general lifespan. So do humans. You don't need to go into how sometimes we get mowed down before that lifespan is up. Just keep it short & sweet. The more we talk, the more we sound like we're convincing ourselves, and that can't inspire confidence in the little ones.


So on that note, I should stop talking already.  :-)



post #7 of 13
Thread Starter 

I really like the "cats bodies are only designed to live 18 years" answer.  I believe in being truthful with kids, too, but I don't necessarily agree that she needs to know right now that someday Mommy and Daddy are going to die.  I think that's too young to put that fear in her.  I don't believe it's hiding anything from her. I think it's about being age appropriate.  I answer every question truthfully, but I'm just not going to say "everything dies" to a 4yo.  If she asks I will answer her honestly, but I'm not going to offer that information.  I don't think it's right.  She's learning about the cycle of life by dealing with the death of a beloved pet, but I am not going to destroy her sense of security by telling her Mommy and Daddy are going to die someday.  If she asks I will probably use NellieKatz suggestion of "People are meant to live 80-90 yrs."

post #8 of 13


   I have similar sensibilities to you in that I also feel children

your daughter's age might be better served by delaying general

discussions about death to some later time. I would suggest

you express what you feel about death.  When my children asked

similar questions I would answer that I didn't know myself why

wonderful living things died and express some of the grief I felt.

Whatever the reason for death, the natural reaction is grief and

I don't think adults understand the mystery of life and death

much more than children do.

   I expressed grief, a sense that I felt it unfair or mysterious

that something so sweet would be lost to us and talked about

how wonderful it was to have the pet with us. The following

quote is about dogs but I think applies to any living thing.


Dogs' lives are too short.  Their only fault, really.  ~ Agnes Sligh Turnbull

post #9 of 13

I wouldn't offer the bit about mom & dad or humans, either. That was just if she asked. The best thing to do is answer briefly ONLY what they ask. Don't give too much info. And I was thinking about it....maybe by also turning the attention to how she might be feeling will help her feel heard and help her feel more settled about it.


Like this:


"Why did she have to die, mama?"

"Cats' bodies are only made to live that long, about 18 years. You really miss her, don't you; it probably doesn't feel fair. Would you like to go snuggle on the bed with me, and you can tell me your favorite memories of Tabitha?" and then it could turn into a nice sweet time remembering your kitty friend. (Just a thought!)


Something like that. Answering the question briefly, honoring/acknowledging the feelings, and possibly having something to offer closure, like a family ceremony or a memory-telling.


That's what I'd probably do.

post #10 of 13

our cat Nikki died at age 22, my girl was 4. Nikki had a stroke at home, she could no longer walk, eat or drink so we took her to the vet, they were really kind and had a special room where she could be put to sleep in my arms. my girl wanted to say goodbye, i let her come in and hold Nikki with me. at one point she said "Nikki isn't there anymore" ... wow, she was so right, children have so much wisdom! i answered her questions very simply. we haven't talked about heaven as a specific place, but she loves the concept of "guardian angels" or "good spirits." she said she thought Nikki would become her guardian angel, the thought makes her happy. she did ask later, i forget what prompted, if and when i would die. i said "everything dies and other things are always being born." she likes the idea of the whole earth bursting with new life every day, she even came up with her own idea that "when Nikki died a flower grew." i think that is just so beautiful.

post #11 of 13
Originally Posted by mandalamama View Post

 "when Nikki died a flower grew."

u know that's true literally speaking. the body breaking down really fertilizes the soil so that lush vegetation grows on the site of the body. on the mounds. 

with issues like death and sex you answer just the question because as they grow older they keep asking more and more direct, unpleasant questions.


and the key is always to answer truthfully and exactly what the child wanted. anything less would be a disservice to our kids.


kids are way wiser and smarter than us sometimes. 


and i am so happy to see so many mamas involve their children in teh goodbye process. esp. at that age kids sooo need a closure. actually any age. dd handled her gparents dying at 5 much better than all her uncles who couldnt handle it and stayed away through the whole taking care and watching them die process. in their 40s and 50s that was the first close death they had experienced and they just didnt know how to handle their grief. 

post #12 of 13

i grew up with relatives dying and i was never taken to a wake or a funeral. my mom wanted to protect me, from what i don't know. we did visit her mother's grave after she died, to lay flowers there. i had absolutely zero idea about dying and death! nothing but a hamster, which i buried. i was completely clueless until my mother-in-law died, i was 25 and that was my first experience with it. i had no idea what to say or do to comfort my husband at the time. that has definitely influenced how i talk to my daughter about the bigger things in life.

post #13 of 13

My kids have grown up with death, funerals, of humans and animals. We do a reptile rescue and because of how they were treated before we got them, they don't always make it. The kids know(and have known from an early age! less than age 4 for some of them) that everything dies, usually from old age but sometimes not. When they were about 4 and 6 their great-grandfather died and I was concerned about taking them to the funeral home/viewing. When we walked in, one of dh's brothers saw them and went to them and led them to see the body...and I have seen since that children involved helps everyone heal, all around. When my FIL's mother died last year, he rode in the funeral car holding hands with one of my daughters.


Ok well that's been mostly about humans...here's my take on animals and young children. What I have always told the kids when an animal dies is, "<pet> got to live it's live knowing that you loved it and took care of it. That was very important to <pet> that it be loved, and it was. It's sad it died, and we'll miss it but at least it had you to take care of it." I've had to say this soooo many times, with all the rescues and other actual pets. But it seems to help, and my 8 year old said all that back to my husband when one of his favorites died last year. I like to stress the importance of how much we loved and cared for the pet while it was living, PLUS it helps teach children to care for animals.


I have always tried to be very honest and not sugar-coat things to the kids. I guess it comes from being so protected growing up. Once I learned how things really were it was a shocker. So far it has worked out well and my oldest is 16. She is not scared of everyone dying, she's still compassionate and loves animals.

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