Telling a child a loved one is dying

Only you know when the time is right and the best way to tell your child that someone they love is dying. This can be incredibly hard, but there are some approaches that can help.

Image of a child and adult walking into Thorpe Hall Hospice

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

What people imagine they would do, may be very different from how it feels when you are actually in the situation. Nothing can take away how hard it is to explain to a child that someone special to them is dying. But the more that you can talk to your child about what is happening, the better they will be able to cope.

Sometimes people don’t want to tell children what is happening, as they can’t bear the pain and heartache they know it will cause. However, even very young children normally sense that something is happening and will often feel anxious and afraid. If you don’t explain things to them, they can often feel unable to talk about it or ask questions. This can make them feel isolated and frightened. Don't complicate things, just speak simply and factually with basic details. Let them know that if they ever want to know anything else they only need to ask.

Most children will have had some previous experience of death, even if it is only something that they have seen on TV. If they have had a pet that has died, it can help them to understand that death is permanent and their special person will never be there again.

You cannot take away the pain and heartache that the death of someone they love will cause. But telling them what is happening gives them the chance to say and do what they want with their special person. After the person dies, children can feel very angry if they feel they weren’t given that opportunity. Most people do choose to tell their children, and we would always recommend that you do.

When is the right time to tell a child?

There is no ‘right time’ to tell a child. Each child is different in their understanding of what is happening, their understanding of what dying means, and their ability to cope. Often we make assumptions about what children know and their understanding of the world around them. But it is important to find out what they do know and understand about what is happening, so that you can explain things in a way that makes sense to them.

You or the person closest to the child can make the best assessment of when is the right time to tell them. For some people, as things change in the family, it can provide a good point to talk about it. For example, when the person’s condition deteriorates, or when you know the person is approaching the end of their life (although this can be hard to predict).

How can I tell them and what should I say?

What you say will depend on their age and experiences, as well as your own experiences, beliefs, feelings and situation. You, or the person closest to the child, know your child best and will know the best way to manage this difficult conversation. Some approaches that can help you are: Choose a time when you won’t be disturbed: If possible try and 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 to be with you for support.

If you feel it is appropriate ask a relative or friend to be with you. This can also give your child another person that they can talk to and ask questions if they want to later on.

Use language they can understand:

  • Use simple and straighforward language.

Try not to use euphemisms – saying things like ‘Nanny has gone to sleep’ or ‘Grandad is in heaven’. These can easily confuse children, making them think that Nanny could wake up, or that going to sleep is dangerous, or that they can go and get Grandad. Children are very literal in their thinking. Even though you may find it difficult, it is better to use the words ‘dead’ and ‘dying’, then check their understanding and explain if they don’t understand.

Go at their pace:

  • Generally children have a short attention span and can only cope with so much information at any one time.

If time allows, it can be helpful to drip feed the information in small amounts, rather than trying to tell them everything at once. This gives them the opportunity to process what is going on. As their special person’s illness progresses, you can add more information.

Try not to look uncomfortable:

  • Telling a child that someone they love is dying is one of the most difficult things you can do.

However, where possible, try not to look uncomfortable as you may give the impression that talking about this is not allowed, and it may put them off asking questions or talking to you later on.

Don’t worry if you become upset:

  • Many people believe that when they tell a child that someone they love is dying, that they have to be strong.

However, it is perfectly ok to show you are upset and to cry - this shows the child that it is ok for them to have the same emotions. Reassure them it’s not their fault: Sometimes children can believe that it’s their fault that their special person is dying - this is called ‘magical thinking’. It’s important to tell them that it is not their fault, and that nothing they have said or done has caused this to happen.

Tell them they can’t change what’s happening:

  • Children may sometimes try bargaining - ‘If I am really good will Daddy get better?’

It’s important to tell them that there is nothing that they can, or should do that will make the person better. Check what they know and understand: Often we make assumptions about what children know and their understanding, so it’s important to check out with them what they know and understand. This will also give you the opportunity to clarify anything that they haven’t quite grasped or understood, and also answer any questions that they may have.

Encourage your child to ask questions:

  • It is important that children feel able to ask questions, so encourage them to do so.

Listen carefully so that you know exactly what they mean. You can also ask them what they think before you answer - this can help clarify what they are actually asking. Try and answer questions as soon as they have been asked, and give simple and honest responses.

However, children often seem to choose the most inconvenient moments to ask questions, such as when you are rushing to get them to school on time! If you can manage to answer their questions when they ask, that is great. If not, validate their question with a response such as: ‘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 we get home from school?’

It is important to make sure that you do follow through with this. 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 are very sensible questions for a child to ask.

You may find them difficult to answer, but 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 the story retold to them to help them process the information.

They may take time to grasp the concept of death and understand that the person will never come back. They often ask the same questions, or ask when the person is coming back, again and again. It can sometimes be very hard for you to keep answering the questions repeatedly while dealing with your own grief. However, this retelling is important in their ability 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 to stop their distress.

However, this is will only postpone the inevitable and in the long-run can be more damaging to the child. Although it is difficult, it is better to be honest and say no, rather than to make a promise that is impossible to keep. You cannot stop children feeling sad, but you can support them by talking to them and listening to them.

Some phrases you might find helpful to use are: "Grandad is poorly in the hospice. Do you know what a hospice is?" This can be a useful way to explain what a hospice is and then go on to explain what is happening to the person. It can also help you to check their understanding of what is happening. It is important to use the right words, such as ‘cancer’, ‘dying’, ‘dead’.

Remember not to use words and phrases like ‘gone to sleep’, ‘lost’, ‘taken by God’ etc, which can confuse children.

"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 is important to use the right words: ‘cancer’, ‘dead’ and ‘dying’.

It is very common for children to say that a person goes to heaven. "Do you remember when your pet goldfish died?" If you know that they have had a pet that died, asking what happened to the pet will help you to check what they understand about dying and to explore their experience of it.

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

Saying something like this can give simple explanation of what dying is:

  • "When someone dies, their body stops working and they do not need to eat or drink anymore. They do not need to keep warm and they do not feel pain. They can’t walk, breathe, sleep, talk or hear anymore. The person’s body doesn’t work anymore and their personality/spirit/soul won’t be here anymore. Our body is like a car, it carries us round, and when we die we don’t need it any more because our personality/spirit/soul has gone away/has gone to heaven."

"What do you think heaven is like?" How you ask this question depends on your own faith perspective.

This will help you to check what they understand about dying. It’s important to check that they don’t think someone can come back from heaven in the same way they can come back from a holiday.

Children are often told about heaven from an early age and often have lovely images of heaven that they can find very comforting. If you don't have an answer yourself, you can simply support them and their own images.