Telling a child a loved one is dying

Some children might experience the death of a grandparent when they're young, or it may be that someone close to them has a terminal illness. Coping with this, and telling your child a loved one is dying, can be really difficult, particularly if this is their first experience of death. That's why we've pulled together advice to support you and your child during this time, including tips about what to say and how to say it.

Should I tell my children that someone they love is dying?

Nothing can take away from how hard it is to tell a child that a loved one is dying. Although you have imagined what you might do, it can feel very different when you’re in the moment. But the more that you can talk to your child about what is happening, the better they’ll be able to cope with what’s going on.

Sometimes people don’t want to tell children someone they love is dying, as they know how much pain it might cause. But when a family member has a terminal illness, often even very young children sense something is happening and feel anxious and afraid. If you don’t explain things to them, they may feel unable to talk about it or ask questions. This can make them feel isolated and frightened. 

When telling your child, try not to complicate things. Speak simply and factually, and try to include only the basic details. Let them know that if they want to know anything else, they only need to ask you.

Most children will have had some experience of death and dying, even if it’s only something they’ve seen on TV, or through a friend at school. If they’ve had a pet that died, it can help them to understand that death is permanent and their special person will never be there again.

You can’t take away the pain and heartache that the death of someone your child loves will cause. But telling them gives them the chance to say and do what they want and feel comfortable with. After the person dies, children can feel angry if they feel they weren’t given that opportunity. That’s why most people choose to tell their children, and why we recommend that you do too. 

When is the right time to tell a child?

There is no ‘right time’ to tell a child that someone they love has a terminal illness. Each child will differ in their understanding of what is happening, what dying means, and in their ability to cope. That’s why it’s important to find out what they think is happening, so that you can explain things in a way that makes sense to them.

How can I tell them and what should I say?

What you say will depend on the situation, their age and experiences, and your own experiences, beliefs and feelings. Here are some approaches that might help:

Choose a time when you won’t be disturbed

If possible, find a time when you know that you won’t be disturbed, and when you won’t be in a rush.

Ask someone else to be there

You may find it helpful to have someone you and your child trust with you for support. If you feel it’s appropriate, ask a relative or friend to be with you. This also gives your child another person they can talk to and ask questions of if they want to later on.

Use language they can understand

Use simple and straightforward language, and try not to use euphemisms. These include phrases like “Nanny has gone to sleep” or “Grandad is in heaven”. 

Children tend to think literally, and these phrases can easily confuse them. They might think that the person could wake up, that going to sleep is dangerous, or that they can find the person in that place. 

Although you may find it difficult, it's better to use the words “dead” and “dying”. You might want to check their understanding of what you have said, and take the time to explain more if needed.

Go at their pace

Children can have short attention spans, meaning they can only cope with so much information at one time. If time allows, it can be helpful to share information bit by bit, rather than trying to tell a child everything at once. This gives them the opportunity to process what is going on.

Don’t worry if you become upset

Many people believe that when they tell a child that someone they love is dying, they have to be strong. Know that it's perfectly OK to show you’re upset and to cry. This also shows them that it’s OK for them to have the same emotions.

Tell them they can’t change what’s happening

Children may sometimes try bargaining - for example, “If I’m really good, will Daddy get better?”. It’s important to tell them that there’s nothing that they can or should do that will make the person better.

It’s also important to tell them that it is not their fault, and that nothing they have said or done has caused this to happen. 

Check what they know and understand

You might want to ask your child how much they know or understand about the situation after you’ve had the chat. This will help you to clarify anything that they haven’t quite grasped, and answer any questions they have.

Encourage your child to ask questions

It’s important that children feel able to ask questions, so encourage them to do so, and listen carefully so that you understand exactly what they mean.

You could also ask what they think before you answer, as this can help to clarify what they're actually asking. When you give your answers, try to be simple and honest. 

If their questions come at an inconvenient time, such as when you’re rushing to go to school, you might want to reply with something similar to: “That’s a really good question, but we haven’t got much time right now. Is it OK if we talk about this tonight when you get home from school?”

It’s then really important to make sure you follow through with an answer when you’ve said you will. 

Prepare answers to some practical questions about death

Children often ask very practical questions, such as: 

  • “What does a dead body look like?”
  • “Why is Grandad in a coffin?”
  • “What happens at the funeral?”
  • “Why do we burn people?”
  • “Will Nanny feel it?”.

These may seem strange to you, but they’re very sensible questions for a child to ask. Although you may find them difficult to answer, the important thing is that you try to answer them as simply and honestly as possible.

If you don’t know the answer it’s OK to say so, but tell them that you will try to find out and come back to them.

Be prepared to repeat information

Children often need to have information retold to them to help them process it. In this instance, they may take time to grasp the concept of death and understand that the person will never come back. This might cause them to ask the same questions, or ask when the person is coming back, again and again.

This can be difficult to cope with, especially while dealing with your own grief. But this retelling is important for them to be able to understand what has happened and begin to grasp the permanence of death.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

If your child asks if their special person will get better, it can be tempting to say yes to try and stop their distress. However, in the long-run, this can be more damaging to the child. 

Although it’s difficult, it’s better to be honest and say no, rather than to make a promise that’s impossible to keep. Sadly, you can’t stop children feeling upset, but you can support them by talking to them and listening to them.

Some phrases you might find helpful to use

“Mummy has been very poorly and the doctors have been trying to make her better, but they can’t. Do you know what happens when people can’t get better?”
This will help you to check what they understand about what is happening. Again, it's important to use the right words: “dead” and “dying” instead of words and phrases like “gone to sleep”, “lost”, “taken by God”, etc, which can confuse children.

“Do you remember when your pet goldfish died?”
If they've had a pet that died, asking what happened to the pet is a way to check what they understand about dying and to explore their experience of it.

“Do you know what ‘dying’ means?” 
This can help you find out what they understand about dying and death, and explain anything they don’t understand.

“What do you think heaven is like?” 
How you ask this question depends on your own faith and religious beliefs, but it (or a version of it) can help you to learn what your child understands about dying. It’s important to check they don’t think someone can come back from being dead, just as they could come back from a holiday.

If you don't have an answer yourself, you can simply support them and their own images. It’s common for some children to hear about heaven at an early age. They might be familiar with the idea and therefore find it comforting. 

How should I tell a child about the death of a grandparent?

Telling a child about the death of a grandma or grandad is never easy. They may be very close to them, or have spent time being cared for by them. This is often a child’s first experience of a loved one dying, and the death of someone so special to them may come as a big shock. 

How you explain things to a child will depend on their age, level of understanding and experiences so far. For example, how you tell a five-year-old about the death of a grandparent will be very different to how you explain it to a teenager. 

If their grandparent dies because of a terminal illness, there may be time to help them understand and prepare. Explain things simply and be ready to answer any questions honestly and directly. They may ask the same things repeatedly, so be patient and consistent. You don’t have to have all the answers, and it’s OK to say you don’t know. You may also be able to find books for their age group which help the child to understand what dying means. 

Some children will be upset immediately, while others may take time to understand and process what’s happening. It may not feel real to them until a family event where the grandparent is no longer there. 

Acknowledge the child’s feelings and show them that it’s OK to be sad, angry or to cry. Give them space to talk about the grandparent who died, if they want to. You could share favourite memories, draw pictures and say what you’ll miss about them. They may want to keep a photo of their grandma or grandad in their room, or a toy or object that reminds them of them.

Experiencing the death of a grandparent from a terminal illness may make a child anxious about sickness, death and dying. They could be afraid other people close to them will die, and might worry about older people they love, and other grandparents. Support them to share any worries, and be ready to reassure them.

You could also tell the child’s teacher or nursery staff that they are grieving for their grandparent, so they understand and can offer extra support if needed. We’ve also got more advice about how to support a child with grief

Looking after yourself

If you’re close to the person who’s dying, don’t forget to look after yourself too. You’ll be better able to support your child if you’re getting the help you need to cope with your emotions.

Our Online Bereavement Community is a safe space to talk to others who understand what you’re going through. You don’t need an account to read what people are saying, but you will need to sign up if you want to share your own experience of being there for your child, and supporting someone who is dying. 

As well as our Online Community, we also have lots of information about the grieving process on Grief Guide and our website. Plus, our Online Bereavement Counselling Service offers free and professional video counselling to help you process your feelings after a bereavement.

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