My 4-year-old’s Broken Heart

Talking to kids about the death of a pet, or a loved one

The author’s three daughters. Photo by Jennifer Margulis.

“I don’t want to be human,” my 4-year-old says when I am putting her to bed one night.

We had just been reading a Tchoupi book. Tchoupi, the main character, is a little creature who makes a lot of mischief, getting into bike crashes, fighting with his dad. Tchoupi and his family are drawn as indistinguishable animals with black and white heads, oval orange noses, and no ears. Perhaps they are penguins.

“What animal would you like to be?” My daughter has my interest now. I am looking forward to a conversation about what it would be like to be a giraffe, say, or a rhinoceros.

Leone starts sobbing. “Nothing!” she chokes. “I don’t want to be anything because I’m afraid of dying.”


“It’s scary and I don’t know what it feels like.” She is crying inconsolably now. I curl myself around her tiny body, which is so filled with sorrow.

She has abandoned herself to grief and it takes a long time for her to settle down. More than twenty minutes pass before the cries turn to hiccups and the hiccups to deep breaths. Finally my daughter sighs and her breathing steadies and she is asleep.

I tiptoe out of the room but stop at the door to look at her: blonde hair haloing her face, eyelids purple, limbs sprawled.

She looks so peaceful. My heart hurts.

I was walking to the subway on the lower East Side when I saw the text from my husband last week: SLEEPY DIED. ATHENA’S STAYING HOME FROM SCHOOL.

Sleepy was our tortoise. When Athena, our second oldest, turned ten, she spent an hour looking around the pet shop until she finally, and triumphantly, decided on a Sulcata tortoise. The pet store owner told us they were easy to care for, would live to be 100 or even 150, and were a clean and pleasant pet.

“You’ll have to make arrangements with your grandchild to care for them,” I told Athena. She threw back her head and laughed.

She named the active one Spotty for the lovely brown spots on his back and the lethargic one Sleepy who lived up to his name by spending most of his time with his eyes closed.

The pet store owner who sold us the tortoises did not tell us they needed UV light in the winter months when they couldn’t go outside, or that a diet of thawed vegetables and lettuce would make them grow too fast and disfigure their shells. He did not tell us that tortoises are prone to eye infections. Or that they will sometimes scratch for hours at the side of the cage, trying to climb out.

We found out the hard way: A year after we got the tortoises Spotty started acting like Sleepy. One day when I brought them outside Spotty barely moved. I sprinkled water on his shell but even that did not rouse him. I should have known something was wrong. A week later he was dead.

I called the pet store. “That’s so strange,” the owner’s wife said. “The first year is when they’re most vulnerable. After that they almost never die.”

I called another pet store. And a friend whose mom kept turtles. It was the owner of the second shop who told me sulcata tortoises need UV light. My friend’s mom suggested dietary changes and more outdoor time.

It was much worse for Athena when Sleepy died. She was inconsolable for days, unable to eat, barely able to go to school. He was there when I came home from New York City, still and cold, immobile on a bright green and yellow West African cloth inside a small cardboard box. As Athena dug the grave with a trowel, next to Spotty’s, she screamed with sadness. Four-year-old Leone put her arms around her big sister. Holding her. Patting her back softly. Saying nothing.

I don’t know if it was Sleepy’s death that made Leone cry herself to sleep that night, and the next night, and the next. When I asked her if she was sad about Sleepy, she shook her head.

“I’m sad about dying.”

I wake up before dawn that first time Leone tells me she does not want to be human. I am restless and uncomfortable; my mouth dry, my tongue thick in my mouth. I think about my mother’s cracked lips as she lay on the bed unable to close her mouth because her right side had been paralyzed by a stroke. Auntie Joanie bought a humidifier, which we plugged in close to my mother’s bed, but I know it didn’t help.

I stayed in the bedroom when a hospice nurse said she was going to bathe my mother, to make sure it was done gently. The short-haired middle-aged nurse managed to be both efficient and gentle. I loved her for it. She rubbed my mother’s back with a soapy washcloth but did not rinse off the soap. My mother smelled fresh and clean when she was finished.

But it was a different nurse who came the next day, younger, the brown roots of her bleached blonde hair showing, her breath smelling like nicotine. She was efficient and impatient. She swabbed my mother’s mouth with a foam mint-flavored stick, a synthetic and disgusting lollipop for people unable to brush their teeth. Even though my mother had had a brain bleed the size of a goose egg and the doctors told us she had no chance of recovering, she grimaced when the nurse twisted that stick around the inside of her cheeks. I was so shattered then. I did not recognize the gaunt grieving face in the bathroom mirror that looked at me. I hated the nurse with the cigarette-stained fingers. I knew was just doing her job.

The night Leone cries herself to sleep for the first time, I am undone. It is still hours before daylight and there is nothing I can do to get back to sleep. I whisper to my mother about Sleepy dying (“Ah well,” she dismissed, totally unsympathetic when she was still alive and I called her to tell her that Spotty was gone. “Survival of the fittest.”), but she stays maddeningly silent. I have not dreamed about her in weeks. I will her to talk to me. She does not. I can’t hear her voice in my head. It hurts to breathe.

“Morning time!” Leone springs out of bed and does a little happy dance, stripping off her pajamas and flinging open all three dresser drawers. My mother, too, was a morning person, waking up happy, buzzing with energy.

“I can get dressed all by myself!” Leone shouts. She chooses blue tights, a purple and white striped dress, and a long pink skirt. She bounces into the kitchen, babbles about Arkana’s “bird day” party, climbs on the counter to get the oats, asks a string of questions.

The fear of dying will visit our family again and again. Athena will burst into tears and sob for hours about her lost pets. Leone will cry herself to sleep. The next several months will be hard for all of us. But for now, broken heart forgotten, Leone at least is happy to be human.

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Categories: end of life.


  1. SarahS

    That was beautiful Jennifer. I think I can see your mom in a few of those girls! So funny her comment about the first tortoise. 🙂 I’m impressed that you allowed the little girl to stay home from school to grieve her pet… we should all be that sensitive.

  2. Susan Selfridge

    My mother, sister, niece and nephew all died untimely deaths in their 30’s and 40’s. I can accept death as a part of life, unless, it is just way to sudden and soon.

    I believe every time another death of someone close to me occurs, I go through a period of grief for all of them, again. Especially those for whom I did not truly grieve.

    I was building a snowman in my childhood backyard on January 23rd, 1960. My sister came running out yelling, “mommy died”! When I think of a pivotal moment in my life, that was it. Frozen in time.

    In those days, it seems, it was swept under the rug. “Go to school. You will be fine”. I was told. I was not.

    Death is a part of life. And, the sooner we can accept that it happens, randomly, the better off we are. A pet is a good prelude to experiencing the suffering that can come. At any moment. I still wonder, every single day, why I spend my life, so much of it, with others, strangers, rather than being with my loved ones. Close and appreciative of every fragile moment.

    My once grief for my pet, Bubbles, was so out of proportion, in my mind, that I knew it was for another, maybe my mother, for whom I was not encouraged to grieve. Grieve we must. It is healthy. If not, it will haunt one all the days of their life. Good to scream out with grief for Sleepy. I feel relief for my sweet granddaughter, Athena. It has to come out. Whether it was for Sleepy, or, still for her beloved Grammie Lynnie. It is out.

    The beauty of Leone. She is still too young to carry that on into tomorrow. Oh, to be that “in the moment”, again….

  3. Lauren

    Thank you, Jennifer. This post touched me deeply. My 4-year old daughter sometimes asks questions about dying. I haven’t always known what to say when she asks me, “when will I die?” I keep in mind her current ability to comprehend death, and I try to address the underlying emotion (fear?) but I know I don’t always get it right.

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