My father died of cancer when I was 4 years old. Even though I saw my father’s body before he was cremated and I understood what death was, I didn’t understand what grief was. I went through life saying that my father’s death didn’t bother me because I was so young. In my 20s I was able to start to confront the profound effect it had on my life. Interestingly, losing my father opened up many possibilities in my life. Although, I was denied the experience of my father growing up, I was privileged to have other experiences instead. Honestly, the touch of death at a young age was the biggest gift that I was given in life. It gave me a sense of impermanence and a feeling of the shortness of the time we all have in our own lives.
Now, I have a daughter and I wonder how I would handle things if I knew my death was coming. The biggest things I would do different from what my father did were:
Insist that I go to therapy as a child and in later in life.
Give me a sense of my father’s identity and my continuity to him.
Give me a sense of my father letting go and trusting that I would be ok.
If your child is 4 years old, you may not need to bring the subject up until you are within a month of your death (if you can know with any sense of precision). In the meantime, spend as much time with her and let her know that you love her. Get lots of pictures taken.