How do you tell a 4 year old that her Daddy died?

Valerie - posted on 11/17/2010 ( 11 moms have responded )

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My niece is turning 4 on Monday and her Daddy just passed away last night. My sister doesn't know how to tell her and I don't know how to help.

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Laura - posted on 11/17/2010

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I am so sorry for your loss; my condolences to you and your family! This has to be the hardest thing to communicate to a small child--the death of a parent. There simply isn't an easy way.

Was her daddy "sick" for a long time or was this very sudden? While young children are quite perceptive, death is something that she won't be able to grasp at her age. Even adults have problems with this reality of life so don't expect her to really understand what is going on. From her perspective daddy is simply gone as in "not present at this time". The permanence of this situation most likely won't register for a while.

Communication of her daddy's death is important so don't try and protect her from the reality--even small children can tell when adults are lying to them. Though painful, the truth of the matter, IMO, is very important for her AND her mom. They will need each other as they deal with this tragic situation and it is best to deal with it openly and honestly.

As hectic as things are right now, try and set aside some quiet time for you to help your sister with this task. Let your niece know that you and her mom have something very important to talk to her about and it concerns her daddy. Bring tissue! If your family has a religious belief that you find comfort in you can use language that relates to how your faith deals with death. Use language that she will grasp as much as possible, but don't expect her to understand fully the significance of this event in her life. That will come as she gets older. I don't presume that everyone is Christian, but as an example (because I understand many moms here are)
you can tell her that her daddy has gone to live with God/Jesus in Heaven and he can't come back. Use whatever religious language or imagery you find appropriate to this situation. Even if you aren't religious, use whatever language gives you comfort (daddy went to live up with the stars, for example). Let her know that while her daddy loved her, it just wasn't possible for him to stay here with her. If her father has had an illness, she most likely already knew that something was wrong with him and that he just didn't get better. Let her ask questions and answer them as best you can. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" either! Use this time for everyone to share their feelings about this. Group hugs help too! I hope this helps a bit and again, I am so sorry that you and your sister have to deal with this subject with your niece. My thoughts and prayers are with you!

Phyllis - posted on 11/17/2010

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The only thing I have to add to the previous posts, is that she needs to know that it's ok to be upset, and that its ok to talk about her father, even if it makes Mommy cry. Lots of kids will stop talking or asking questions b/c they don't want to hurt their parent. She needs to know that everyone around her feels the way she does and its even ok to feel angry.

Sarah - posted on 11/17/2010

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I'm so sorry for your family's loss.
I can recommend a little book called Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney. It really helps children understand the permanance of death and that theperson can't come back.

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User - posted on 09/21/2012

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I am with you there. My step son is six and we just recieved a call saying that his mom is dead. I don't even know what to do???

Sondra - posted on 12/01/2010

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I was 4 when my daddy. My mom Told me thatGod needed his help so had to take him for a little while. But if i wanted to see him all i would have to do is dream and pray for him and i would see him in my dreams. I think about what i would tell my girls if their daddy was killed, he is in the military and there is no telling what would happen.

Rosie - posted on 11/26/2010

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How teribbly sad for your family. My heart and condolenses go out to you all. I lost my father at 5 years old. I do not rember the finer details, I only rember what I was told. I personally think that open communication is the only way that your family will get through this. My mum was always honest with me, and still is to this day.

Recently my 7 year old lost our neighbour to cancer and my daughter was very close with her. She does go to a catholic school and death is being explained to her in a religious way. (Still not sure if I personally agree). When we left the funeral of our neighbour a butterfly went past and I told her it was Heather, every time she sees a butterfly she thinks of Heather. I also told her that the stars in the sky represent people who have passed and are watching over us.

I don't know if this is right or wrong but she was happy with the answer.

My heart is with you all in this difficult time.

Angie - posted on 11/17/2010

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My mom was 7 when her father was killed by a drunk driver while she was at school. The driver was the father of one of her classmates (in a class of about 15). Her older brother took her home from school, they sat down and talked with the younger children about what had happened - the children were 2 to 20 or so. They told them that he was in heaven with Jesus and would be waiting to see them. Mom says that one thing that really helped her though this was that all the children went to the funeral home together, before any services and talked with their daddy. She says that if she hadn't had that opportunity, the funeral would have been horrible. About 15 years ago my cousin's husband committed suicide. She listened to my mom's advice - both girls were under 5, I think. The most hearbreaking thing I have EVER heard in my life is the oldest daughter saying, "my daddy is in there" as they lowered the casket into the ground. I will pray for your family. I can't imagine the pain you are all feeling....

Valerie - posted on 11/17/2010

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Thank you everyone. These are very much appreciated suggestions. It happened quite sudden. As far as we know, he was a healthy 34 year old man. We have to wait for the reports to come back to know what happened. Thanks again for all your suggestions.

Laura - posted on 11/17/2010

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Jackie-Rae, that is not an uncommon reaction from small children when dealing with death. That's what can make talking about this subject so tough when little kids are involved--one never knows precisely how the child will react. That is why it is so important to keep talking with them about there feelings, which includes fear. Reassurance of the child and lots of "security" hugs will be needed. I was fortunate (in a way) that my daughter's first experience with death came with the loss of a beloved pet when she was about 6 years old. While not the same as a loss of a parent, her fears were no less real when it came to her understanding of the permanence of death and that everyone eventually dies. It's a tough life lesson for everyone...

For anyone interested in rituals that purtain to death, here is one that we practice at our house every year:
Once a year, around the time my mother died 2 years ago (November 8 for us) we host a "dumb supper" in her honor as well as for other friends and family that have gone before us. We fix a special meal and set a place at the table (with an accompanying framed photo!) for my mother. We place small amounts of food on the plate and invite her spirit (as well as other friends and family) to join us at the table as we sit and tell stories, share memories of my mom (and other relatives and friends), and grieve if needed. This is a ritual based off of ancient Celtic (my ancestory) ceremonies and many rituals that are still practiced in Eastern religions.

This special meal and time for remembering our loved ones has become popular enough that our church hosted a similar "rememberence day" where we placed stones in a vessel of water as we spoke our loved one's name (All Soul's Day, November 2). This has become an important time for my widower father and for my daughter, who usually includes a bit of pet food on the plate for our pets that have passed on. My dad even shared this ritual with his Hospice support group and they liked it so much they held a special dinner too. The beauty of this ritual is that it can be crafted to fit a family's ethnic, cultural, or religious background fairly easily while still honoring the memories of our loved ones. My family will be hosting this meal again next year...

Jackie - posted on 11/17/2010

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I'm not really sure how to answer this...

An acquittance of mine recently hung himself and was it was completely unexpected. Nobody saw that coming at all. Well he has a three yo (almost 4) daughter and they told her that Daddy got sick and went to heaven. Nobody saw what happened next coming either.

Now she's terrified that either herself or her Mommy is going to get sick and have to go to heaven.

In all honesty, I probably would have said something similar (probably would have said stars instead though) and would not have expected it to backfire like that so so choose your words carefully.

So sorry to hear of your loss.

~Jennifer - posted on 11/17/2010

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....I have no idea.

I'm still trying to figure out how to tell my 3 1/2 year old that her grandma died - in a way that she can understand. We live a few states away, but saw her often....she asks about her all the time, and all I've been able to come up with so far is "grandma's not here right now".

My best to all of you in this very difficult time.

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