How Do You Explain Death to a 3-Year-Old?

Life lessons from Lollipop the caterpillar. By Amy Shearn, REDBOOK.

Harper and Lollipop in happier times.Harper and Lollipop in happier times.Joining a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] has always been up there on my list of "Things That Ideal Me Does," along with writing actual letters and taking long bike rides with baguettes and bunches of peonies stuck in the basket. This summer, I finally decided to take action and sign up, and now every other week I head to the community garden to pick up loads of mysterious veggies from a local farm. Like most city-dwellers who join CSAs, I have been mystified by my findings: mutant-limbed carrots, leafy greens layered with dirt, and, most recently, a caterpillar in the wildflowers.

My daughter Harper was the one who found the caterpillar as she was arranging some flowers - by which I mean crushing them into a dolly cup. "What's this?" she said. "Part of the flower?" I didn't look up from the bale of cilantro I was trying to deal with. "Mm-hmm."

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"Part of the flower that moves around?" Harper asked uncertainly. I came over to investigate. There on her finger was a slender yellow eyelash of a caterpillar. When I said it was a bug, Harper became quite alarmed and suggested murder, or at least expulsion. But I was struck with inspiration. Ideal Me wouldn't throw the caterpillar out the window onto the neighbors' deck! Ideal Me would nurture the caterpillar, teach the children about life cycles, and coax out the garden pest's inner butterfly!

One Internet search later, Lollipop the Caterpillar was quietly freaking out in a makeshift terrarium. We scooped in dirt from a houseplant, threw in the flower she arrived in, and added a little jar of water and cotton balls. For a half an hour or so, we were a family of devout nature lovers. Lollipop was given a voice and a personality. Lollipop stood on one end in the middle of her mason jar, like a shipwrecked soul stranded on an island, wiggling frantically as if signaling for help. We waved back.

At three, Harper is getting to the age where she's starting to ask about certain life cycle events. I'm not sure how much to explain or when. Her best friend's goldfish, Salad-Harper-California-Cookie, recently passed on, and there was some discussion in their household about the death situation - but we haven't gotten there yet.

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I'm sorry to report that Lollipop only lasted a few days and then spent 48 hours or so petrified on a stem. ("Maybe she's cocooning?" My husband suggested. "I think they usually build a cocoon first," I said.) The thing is, Harper had completely forgotten about Lollipop and hadn't peeked at the death-trap-terrarium on the kitchen windowsill for days. So I didn't deliver the Big Talk. I didn't say anything, actually, before I unceremoniously gave L.P. the old "Brooklyn Funeral" (throwing her down the garbage chute under the cloak of darkness).

It wasn't until almost a month later, as we admired our newest batch of already-wilting sunflowers, with a whiff of nostalgia for the unnaturally long-lived flora of the corner bodega, that Harper froze and said, "I forgot about Lollipop. What happened to her?" I opened my mouth to explain that Lollipop had gone on vacation, but Ideal Me wrested control. "She died. That means she isn't alive anymore."

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A heartbreaking procession of emotions flickered across Harper's face before she burst into tears. She cried and cried. I told her that all the energy from Lollipop's body had gone back into the earth. I told her Lollipop was now helping other flowers and caterpillars to grow. She kept crying. I told her we had some ice cream in the freezer. She looked up, smeared her snotty nose across my chest, and said, "Okay. Let's eat some ice cream. But let's not get any more caterpillars ever again."

I know exactly how she feels.

Amy Shearn is the mother of two small children, and is the proprietress of Household Words, a blog about babies, books, and Brooklyn. She also writes for Oprah.com and MommyPoppins.com. Amy is the author of the novel How Far Is the Ocean From Here (Shaye Areheart/Crown 2008) and a forthcoming novel about, what else, a Brooklyn mother, called The Mermaid of Brooklyn that will be published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2013.

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