We learned recently from the vet that our dog has cancer and probably only has a few months left (he's old, don't feel too bad).

My 4-year old daughter reacted to this by saying "good, this means I'll get all the attention" (as in, once the dog has gone)

She is an only child and is in no way starved of attention and if anything the dog gets very little. I'm not sure if she's joking here, but my wife is a little concerned. Is this a normal reaction? Something to be concerned about?

  • Did you perhaps give extra attention to the dog that day or that trip that might normally be given to the girl instead?
    – user26011
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 21:04
  • 3
    It sounds fairly normal to me -- she doesn't understand death and she has no filter on the truth as she sees it.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 21:29
  • She will not know what death is until she has experienced someone taken away by it. So unless no one close to her has died before she simply probably doesn't have any idea what she is talking about. But who can blame her? She's four. Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 21:36

1 Answer 1


Given what a typical 4 year old knows about death, it most likely means nothing, as painful as it may have sounded to you. You know about suffering and death; she does not, especially if she has never experienced someone (or something) close to her dying.

According to Child Bereavement UK, children 2 to 5:

Often struggle with abstract concepts like ‘forever’ and find it difficult to grasp that death is permanent. Their limited understanding may lead to an apparent lack of reaction when told about a death.

Agreeing with this, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that depending on their age, development, personalities and other factors, children may express (among other things):

Loss/emptiness/sadness, Relief, Guilt and self-blame, Fear, Acting out behavior, Explosive emotions, Regression or Lack of feelings [emphasis mine]

The article goes on to state that at ages 2 - 6, dead only means "not alive”, that it's not concrete yet, and death is seen as temporary.

Ages 4-6 years: Many of the characteristics of the 2-3 year old development remain, particularly a belief that death is temporary, and the loved one will be returning (or even that they should go visit them). What is additionally challenging at this age is the tendency to think that they did something to cause the death, so called “magical thinking.”

The linked article has materials to use in explaining death, et., if you need them, however, it will probably not mean much to your daughter until she witnesses your sadness and the dog's decline. This is a great opportunity, however, to teach your daughter about the natural aspects of death.

I'm sorry for your loss. I have senior dogs and the thought of their demise is very sad.

Coping With Death
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