Three days after the cat died, we decided to break the news to the 4 yr old, although the thought did cross our minds to wait and see how long it would take her to figure out the cat was gone. We had considered how to talk about the subject of death without telling her that Gato just went to sleep (to avoid sleep fear), or that she is buried (to avoid buried-while-you're-awake fear), or that she went to heaven to be with jesus (to avoid future christianity confusion).
Ironically, the night before we told her, Amelie asked what happened to Mr. Burns (our old cat that died when amelie was 1). I lied and told her Mr. Burns was very old, and when you're very old, you die (he was actually hit by a car). She asked me, "Older than me?" "Yes, older than you." She continues,"Older than you?" "Yes, older than me." She asks, "Why do we die?" Again, i lied, "We die when we get very very old. That's why." She didn't look entirely convinced, but let me off the hook.
The next morning, we were all snuggled in bed and i told amelie, "Remember last night when we were talking about mr. burns and how he died? Well, Gato died last night" (again with the lies). Amelie paused, and asked, "Where is she?" I replied, "She's dead." Amelie processes some more and asks, "But where is she?" I stammer, and come up with, "She's all gone because she's dead." Amelie persists,"Where is she?" My athiest engineer husband says, "But her spirit lives on, amelie. With Mr. Burns, and Baily, and Booty, and CD" (all our childhood dead animals). As amelie is asking him about "spirit," i look at him with a WTF-are-you-doing face--and he responds by shrugging and saying to me, "You gotta take it from here, i'm not sure where to go with this."
I told her i felt sad that Gato was dead, but it would make me feel better to share our favorite memory of Gato. I started to tell amelie about the day I got Gato as a kitten, and amlie rudely interrupted with "READ. ME. This book!" I said, "Don't you want to share stories--" "NO!"
That was a week ago, and amelie didn't bring it up again, nor did she seem sad. This morning, she told me, "When we're bigger than me or you, we go to Egypt." I asked her, "Um, what?" She said, "Gato and Booty and Mr. Burns are in Egypt and we'll go there too when we're bigger."
I'm not sure where we went wrong with the lesson about death. While we avoided fears about going to sleep or getting buried out in the cold, we may have started a fear about Egypt.