When You Need to Explain Death to a 3 Year Old

Until yesterday, Harrison hated domestic animals. This is because, back when he was a little over a year old, he decided to pull our cat’s tail and paid the consequences for it. Cameron snapped back and bit Harrison, which scared the daylights out of him. He was too young then to understand that cats don’t like it when people pull their tails, but it’s been an important life lesson that we have referred back to many times:

“Now, Harrison, don’t pull your sister’s hair. It’s not kind.”

“Right Mommy, like that time I pulled Cammies’ tail and he bit me.”

“Yes, sort of like that.”


“Harrison, you must not bite Mommy to get her attention!”

“Oh yeah, because you didn’t pull my tail, so it’s not ok to bite.”
“Ok, yeah, whatever.”

I’m not saying he completely has it down, but he definitely remembers this to be one of his most traumatic life experiences to date, and although I am sad about the event in and of itself, I am happy he learned some kind of lesson.

After Cameron passed away about a year ago, we had our first talk about death. I was completely ill-prepared for it, because that cat had been my heart and soul for thirteen years, and I couldn’t really cope with his death myself, let alone explain it to my toddler. Luckily, Harrison had been way over the cat’s existence ever since the biting experience, so he didn’t ask many questions when Cameron died. Harrison knew we had taken Cameron to the animal hospital, and he didn’t come back home. So therefore, he thought that the animal hospital was heaven. I let that one slide because heaven is a REALLY hard thing to explain to a kid (If you don’t believe me, then you either do not have children or you have never had to try to explain afterlife to them. And if you did, I bet they asked you for a cracker in the middle of your excellently planned speech and you just gave up.) This is probably about the point in my life where I’m going to get a call from my godmother telling me that this is exactly why I need to take my children to church.

So now, you can imagine my surprise, nearly a year later, when Harrison bursts into tears in the car seat exclaiming that he misses Cameron and he wants him back. I don’t have ANY CLUE where this came from, but it took me an entire half hour to calm him down. I even tried telling him we could get a new cat soon and he sobbed, “I don’t want another kitty! I want Cameron!” Me too buddy, me too, but what kind of kid doesn’t want a NEW anything?

I was able to pacify him by telling him fond memories of Cameron, and showing pictures once we got back home. By the time he went to bed, he was happy that Cameron was in heaven, which is no longer the animal hospital but now the sky (“No, honey we won’t see him when we go on an airplane next month”-here we go again with the misconceptions…) where he eats tuna fish, drinks milk out of a fancy saucer, takes lots of naps and plays with balls of yarn. He is also excited about the prospect of a new cat.

Although I was eager to use this experience as a trick of persuasion to talk Justin into getting a new cat, I realize how big of a milestone it is for Harrison to recognize the absence of someone (yes, cats are someones too!) in his life and ask difficult questions about it. Maybe none of us are ready to fill that void with a new furry friend yet. Perhaps, for now, we should just celebrate the life of the one who filled our hearts for so many years.

Author: livefromtimeout

When I'm not refereeing my two children, I like to workout and drink wine. But not at the same time. Teaching happens to be my vocation and my passion.

13 thoughts on “When You Need to Explain Death to a 3 Year Old”

  1. That cat touched many hearts in significant ways. I remember when you brought him home after you rescued him from somewhere down south. You were in college and I was not happy that you brought home a kitten! I explained to you that we already had two cats too many and that you could NOT leave him at home. It was your first year off campus and you announced that you planned to take Cameron to your apartment. I expressed my concerns (pets allowed? roomates ok with this? how to pay for vet bills and food and litter?). You got a far away look in your eyes and at that moment, I realized that you really were growing up and ready to learn responsibility.
    Imagine my pride when within a few days of your dad and I helping you settle into your first apartment you called us with your news. You had gotten a job at the Vet office across the street, where you would get a discount on his care, get paid and be able to pay for your new dependents needs, and that your roomates fell in love with Cameron and your landlord was willing to look the other way! I remember thinking, “She gets it!” Our little girl was becoming a responsible young lady. When you called to tell us of Camerons passing, That memory and many others about you with Cameron flooded my mind. Ýou had come full circle with a living being. I cried for you and I cried for me and mostly I cried for an end of an era in your life. I knew that you would be just fine with life’s other struggles.


  2. Awww…it’s so hard on the littles when a pet dies. We’ve had a couple cats pass away along with some family members and it is hard to explain why we won’t see Aunt Mindy anymore. I think you did a great job handling your son’s grief. Kudos to you. 🙂


  3. I agree Tara. I actually completely avoided telling him about the death of my friend’s mom because I was not ready to explain that PEOPLE go away too. That’s for another day and another post.


  4. Such a poignant story! I think the loss of a pet is probably the first brush with death for a lot of children; I know my youngest as foregone having a pet for that very reason–he knows it would make him too sad to lose it!


  5. Oh, sweet kitty and sweet Harrison. I have tried to explain death and heaven to my own children and it is very difficult. I was hoping they’d ask for a cracker instead.

    I hope you do get a new kitty to love.


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