Explaining Death To A Four Year-Old

stellaI have private thoughts and beliefs about God. Or god. Or whatever. My husband has private thoughts and beliefs as well. As far as I have always understood it, we were never on the same page about God. Or god. But we love each other and we respect our differences. We never really thought this would come up during child rearing, and then yesterday our cat, Stella, almost died. Our four year-old had an existential crisis. I had a heart crushing Mom day. My husband was the quiet hero giving explanations where they were sorely needed. Lucky for me, he managed to blend the stark differences in our varied belief systems in order to lovingly explain this to our son:

Stella is going to live in the stars. She will be there always. When you think of her, you will feel her in your heart. If you miss her and want to tell her things, you can look up in the beautiful night sky and find her gazing back down at you.

We always said that we would allow our children to grow up first and then decide on a faith for themselves. My husband did not come from a strongly religious family. I grew up in a household that was part-time Catholic. Although I would eventually grow away from Catholicism, I had memorized a bunch of hymns and prayers, learned to fear God and the Devil, and ever since then have been absolutely terrified of ghost stories.

Yesterday, as Stella was dying, I discovered that the problem with letting my children wait until they are adults to find faith is that I am forcing them to lose out on a childhood of discovering what it feels like to have a belief in something greater than their selves. Not having a single belief system or religion to fall back on makes trying to explain heavy concepts like death feel Sisyphean at best. But if we don’t have a unified faith in our household then how am I to give them the opportunity to believe in something other than Santa and the Tooth Fairy?

It was a long day of tough questions and even tougher answers. We were so sure that Stella was dying. We were so sure that this was going to be one of those harsh but quick experiences in life that we could recall later to suss out grand and meaningful lessons.

We were wrong. Stella lived.

We haven’t been asked about God yet. We managed to keep that idea away from the conversations about death. Apart of me felt like this was silly to do, but an even bigger part of me felt that since our son had no understanding of God yet that we wouldn’t make the already arduous challenge of explaining death just that much more complicated. He is only four, after all.

Stella is a still alive, and getting better. She has a heart condition that we were told would eventually lead to a stroke event that could cause paralysis or death. Her hind legs won’t work now. She’s like a half cat, really. Her top half purrs and is warm and soft. Her bottom half is cold and ashen and limp. She still might die. For now, she appears to be comfortable and receptive to being loved by four pairs of hands. If things take a sharp turn for the worse we’ll take her to the Vet quickly and quietly, and, God willing, without much explanation.

© Sarah Cottrell and www.sarahcottrell.wordpress.com and Housewife Plus, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Cottrell and www.sarahcottrell.wordpress.com and Housewife Plus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sarah Cottrell

About Sarah Cottrell

Maine-based writer Sarah Cottrell is the voice behind Housewife Plus at the Bangor Daily News and is a regular contributor to Disney’s Babble and Momtastic. She is a co-author in six books including I Still Just Want To Pee Alone from the New York Times Bestselling series. Sarah’s work has also been highlighted and featured by SELF Magazine, National Public Radio, Washington Post, and VICE Tonic.