Supporting a child when someone is dying

Even young children can pick up on how people around them are feeling and changes in routine, whether you have told them what is happening or not. These changes can feel very worrying and frightening, but there are ways that you can help them to cope.

When someone in the family is dying, children often see practical changes happening around them. They may see their normal family routine changing, health professionals visiting, and roles within the family changing - perhaps as the person who is dying plays a less active role and others step in.

At the same time, there are emotional changes, as family members may already be starting to grieve and struggling to cope with their own emotions. Children normally pick up on all these changes, and can become very worried and frightened.

Finding the best way to support them through this time can help them to cope when the person they care about eventually dies.

Some things that can help them cope

Be as open and honest as you can about what is happening:

  • Children often pick up on snippets of conversation they overhear, as well as what is happening around them. This can make them more frightened than if everything is explained to them openly and in a way they can understand.
  • Children also deal with things better if they feel able to ask any questions, and talking with them shows them it’s ok to ask questions.

Give children the choice to spend time with the person if they want to:

  • This will give them the chance to do and say the things that they want to and to build memories for the future.
  • However, it is important not to force them to do anything they don’t want to do. Be prepared that they may respond differently from how you expect them to.

Give them the option to be involved in caring:

  • Children often want to help and to be involved. Finding ways for them to do this if they want to, without over-burdening them, can actually help them to cope - and to feel included and part of what’s going on.

Accept their emotions:

  • Even young children can be aware of things that can make you ill – like smoking or drinking – and can blame or be angry with the person who is dying for what is happening.
  • As an adult it can be incredibly hard to deal with those emotions. But, although those emotions may be directed towards you, they are actually part of how your child is processing what is happening.

Help them identify who can support them:

  • Your child may not always want to talk to you about what they are feeling.
  • Help them to identify someone they trust that they feel able to talk to about what is happening. This could be a family member, close friend or teacher.

Help them get to know the hospice if the person who is dying plans to go into one, or is already there:

  • A hospice will seem less frightening to a child if they are familiar with it, ask the hospice if you can arrange a visit with them to have a look around before they go in to visit the person.

Let their school know what is happening:

  • The school will keep the information you tell them confidential.
  • If they know what is happening, they will be better able to support your child.

Don’t make promises that you can't keep:

  • Sometimes it can be tempting to try to spare a child’s feelings. For example, if they ask you if their special person will get better, you may wish to stop their distress by saying ‘yes’.
  • Although can be difficult, it is always better to be honest, rather than to make a promise that you can’t keep.

Get support:

  • There is no road map for how your child will feel or behave and no right or wrong way to support them, but there are people who can help you.
  • Your lead health professional is often a good starting point for help and advice and can direct you to other more specialist support if you need it.

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