How Do You Explain Death To A 4-Year-Old?
I can admit that my daughter leads a pretty sheltered life. She has a whole lot of family who all live close by. We spend a tremendous amount of time with cousins, grandparents, and close family friends. She’s never lost anyone that she knew well. The scariest thing that’s happened to her might be her parents’ trips to the hospital last year. Both my husband and I were in for surgery, but our lives were never in danger. She could come visit us and see our surgical scars without too much concern.
I had talked to my little girl about death, in a general sense of the term. She’s only four, but she knows that when you die, you go to Heaven, but you don’t even get to come back down to earth. I’ve promised her that I’ll never go, as long as I have a choice in the matter. I always figured that we had much more time to grapple with mortality and tragedy. She’s a kid, after all. Plenty of time for that.
Then we had a tragic incident happen on our way home from a friend’s last evening. As we were driving down a mildly busy road, we noticed a small Yorkshire Terrier walking in the road. Since we have two puppies of our own, we’re a pretty animal-friendly bunch. We pulled over to get the dog out of danger and check for a collar.
However, as I was rounding the back of our car and standing on the curb, the small dog was hit by another oncoming car. It smacked right into him and just kept on driving. I’m pretty sure I yelled. I don’t really remember. I remember seeing that poor animal thrown into the air, because I don’t think I’ll ever get the image of him out of my head. Or the sound of him whimpering, that won’t go away for a long time.
I stood there practically frozen as my husband jumped out of the car. He grabbed a beach towel we had in the back and wrapped the puppy up, carrying him to the side of the road, so that he wouldn’t get hit again. At some point I made my way back to the car as my husband called animal control to come put the puppy out of his misery.
That would be the point when I remembered that my daughter had been watching out of the window while the whole thing happened. She obviously didn’t realize what she saw at first. She asked if she could go help daddy with the puppy. She wanted to help take care of him. I gently said that the dog was dying, that being hit by a car hurt him too bad.
For the first few minutes, I was amazed at how well she seemed to be taking what was honestly really traumatic for me. She calmly asked if puppies could go to Heaven too. I assured her that he could. She decided we should pray for him, so we sat and held hands and said a prayer. It seemed like my heroic little girl was going to handle this better than I was.
Then as we pulled away, she started sobbing. She was inconsolable, crying that it was all her fault because she didn’t get out to help him. If only she could’ve gotten out of the car to help the puppy, she was positive he wouldn’t have been hit. I tried to assure her that we did all we could, but that sometimes sad and horrible things happen. She didn’t want to accept that.
It may not seem like a life-changing ordeal, but it was a moment that my natural motherhood instincts completely failed me. How do you make something so sad feel better for a child? I couldn’t lie to her about what she had seen. I couldn’t reason it out for her. It was just terrible, plain and simple.
We made our way home, both my daughter and I still crying. We let the dogs get in on the couch, even though it’s supposed to be the one place they aren’t allowed. We cuddled our labs for all we were worth, feeling overly protective and intensely grateful that they were home safe. Last night, the entire family – dogs, daughter and all – slept in bed with my husband and I. It was a little crowded, since our dogs take up as much room as average-sized adult human beings, but we didn’t mind. I might have run out of the right words to say, but at least I could surround my little girl with the family that loves her while she mourned a poor little puppy on the side of the road.