Preparing a child for loss

Preparing children for the loss of a parent is an incredibly hard thing to do. You will know the best way to talk to your family. Talking over different ways of approaching this very difficult time can be helpful. You don’t have to do it alone. You can get a lot of support from family, friends and healthcare professionals.

You may want to protect children and teenagers from the news that you aren’t going to get better, but they will usually realise that something has changed. Being honest and including children in what’s happening is usually the best approach. You could start by asking them how much they already understand and then gradually explain what’s happening. It’s a good idea to explain things in clear and simple language that children can understand.

How much a child understands and their reaction to death will depend on how old they are. Even children as young as three can grieve. Children may ask questions to help them understand the situation. It can be helpful to think about what they might ask and rehearse your answers in advance.

Talking to children about dying

Finding out that a diagnosis is terminal is a shocking and emotional time. We hope that the suggestions in this information are helpful, but you may have different ideas about how to approach your children. That’s perfectly okay. There is no right or wrong way to cope with this situation. Even with support, discussions can be distressing for you and the children, or they may not go as you had planned. The important thing to remember is that you’re trying to do the best you can in really difficult circumstances.

Preparing children for the loss of a parent is an incredibly hard thing to do. You will know the best way to do this for your own family. But talking over the different ways of approaching this very difficult time can be helpful. You don’t have to do it alone and it’s not unusual to need a lot of support from family and close friends. Professionals such as social workers, palliative care nurses, doctors, counsellors and psychologists can also help you.

Sometimes your closest relatives are so distressed themselves that they may not be able to understand the best way to help you or your children. It might help you to involve them in your discussions with professionals, when you are ready to do this and are clear about what you want.

Being honest and including children in what’s happening is usually the best approach. It’s natural to want to protect children from painful experiences. But we know that adults who lost someone close to them when they were children often wish they had known more about what was going on at the time. They knew something was wrong but everyone told them the opposite or would not talk to them at all.

When talking about dying, talk openly with your children and use clear language. This allows you to find ways of helping your children to cope in the future. It will also give you the opportunity to show how much you care for each other. It is often easier for children to hear information in small chunks, rather than all in one go. You may need to repeat simple messages several times. What is important is to explain things in language that children can understand.

Emphasise that everyone – the doctors, nurses and you yourself – have done everything possible to keep you living, but there is no medicine that can make you better. Explain that it will soon be your time to die.

Use simple words such as ‘dying’ or ‘died’, when you tell young children about death. Try not to use phrases that may confuse them. For example, saying that you will be ‘going away’ or ‘going to a better place’ may make a child feel that you are abandoning them. Try not to use ‘going to sleep’ to describe dying, because young children may then be afraid of going to sleep.

Also encourage the people who will talk to your children after you die to use clear language. Saying a parent or guardian is ‘lost’ or has ‘passed away’ can be confusing. They may wonder why no one is looking for the person who has died.

By talking honestly about what is happening, you are helping your children to feel more secure at an upsetting time. Young children can often find reasons to blame themselves in ways that you would not expect. Opening up to them helps to reassure them that they’re not responsible for someone’s death. You will also be giving them the chance to talk about how they’re feeling and ask questions that are important to them.

Be aware of what your children may hear when you are talking to other adults. It can be very frightening for children to understand some but not all of the facts that they overhear. Children are imaginative, and in stressful situations using that imagination can sometimes scare them. This is particularly true if they are trying to make sense of what is happening without talking to you directly. It’s a good idea to check their understanding every now and then, especially if you think they may have accidentally overheard a conversation not meant for them.

There is a difficult balance between protecting them and letting them be kids, and being honest with them.

Ben


How do children understand and react to death at different ages?

The way children understand and react to death can depend on their age and their level of understanding. It may be helpful to know how your children might react before you talk to them. Emotional reactions in children and teenagers can also appear as physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches. There may also be changes in their behaviour.

Very young children (aged under three)

Children under three can pick up that something very serious is happening, even if they cannot understand what death means. Children as young as three can grieve. Some children under three may slip backwards in some of their developing behaviours, for example toileting or feeding.

Young children (aged 3–5)

Children aged 3–5 may have heard about dying but they may not understand what it means. They may imagine that a dead person will come back or is living somewhere else.

How to help:

  • Keep reminding children that you don’t want to die and leave them. But explain that when it does happen you will not be able to come back. 
  • Ask someone you and the children know and trust to keep a special eye open for how they are coping and feeling. Let the children know who you are asking to do this.
  • Keep to everyday routines when you can.
  • Let them know that the cancer isn’t their fault.
  • Reassure them that they cannot catch the cancer from you.
  • Let someone you trust at playgroup or school know what is happening so that extra support can be arranged.

Older children (6–12)

Children aged 6–12 know about death but, as with children of all ages, they may not always understand the emotions they feel. By about nine, children begin to understand death more like adults do. But they may still believe that if they are very ‘good’ their parent or guardian may come back. Their worry is more likely to be that death is frightening or painful.

How to help:

  • The suggestions for children aged 3–5 will still be helpful to many children in this age group.
  • Use books to talk about the end of life.
  • Encourage them to keep up with school, other activities and friendships.
  • Let them know it is okay to enjoy themselves. It is also okay to be sad.
  • Give them small tasks to do to help out. For example, they could put flowers in a vase or bring you a glass of water.
  • Explain the situation to their teacher. You may also want to explain what is happening to a few parents of their friends, who you know they trust. They can also offer support.

Teenagers

Teenagers often find it harder than younger children to cope with the news that someone is dying. They’re old enough to know that this means a major change and loss in their life. They may cope in ways that are difficult for you to understand or deal with. Some teenagers may refuse to talk about the illness, while others may try to become closer to their parents. Some may get angry with you or your partner in ways that seem thoughtless. They may then feel guilty about how they’ve acted, or feel bad about spending time with their friends.

Teenagers need to know that there’s no right or wrong way to feel at this time and that it’s okay if their feelings change a lot.

How to help:

  • Ask them what they think and, if they want to be, include them in the same way as you’d include an adult.
  • Help them see that talking about feelings is a positive and mature way of coping. Encourage them to talk to someone they are close to, such as their friends, a relative, a family friend or a trusted teacher.
  • Give them time and space to themselves when they want it.
  • Tell them about useful sources of information.
  • Encourage them to keep up with their friendships, activities and normal life as much as possible.
  • Keep to usual rules and boundaries – these can be even more important now than before, as they can help teenagers feel safe.
  • It might help to gently remind them that their behaviour may affect their younger siblings.

Be prepared to have your child say, “Alright” and walk off and go and watch the telly. That’s okay, because that’s their way of dealing with it.

Carol


Questions children may ask

It may help to think about questions your children may ask in advance, and about how you want to respond. There isn’t a right or wrong way. We have some suggestions here, but you will have your own ways of explaining things to your family. What matters is that your children feel able to ask questions and talk about how they feel.

What will happen to me?

‘Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad will still be here for you and will look after you. It’s very important to me to make sure you’ll be safe and looked after, so we’ve already talked about it.’

Will I get cancer?

‘Cancer isn’t like a cold and you can’t catch it. It’s okay to sit close to Mummy/Daddy/Granny/Grandad and hug or kiss them.’

Am I going to die too?

‘You can’t catch cancer. Most people die when they’re old and their bodies get worn out. It’s very unusual and sad for someone young to be so ill that the doctors can’t make them better.’

Will other people I love die too?

‘Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad are well and healthy at the moment and will be here to look after you.’

Is it my fault?

‘Nothing you did, said or thought made me ill. It’s no one’s fault.’

Who will look after me if Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad dies too?

‘If something happened to Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad, we can arrange for someone you know well to become your guardian and they will look after you.’

It’s difficult to describe to a child how someone will die, as no one can ever predict exactly when it will happen or exactly what will happen. Children need to have gradual explanations about what has happened and why, and what may happen next. Again, if you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so. But explain that you will talk to someone who might be able to answer their questions.

Sometimes, the cancer or the side effects of treatment can change a parent. For example, strong painkillers may cause drowsiness. It is important to keep talking to the children as the situation changes. If a parent is going to go into hospice, you may want to prepare your children before visiting. You could show them the hospice’s website or some photographs.

Older children may want to know more about what happens when someone is dying and need more information. We have more information about the end of life, which you may find helpful when talking to them.

If you do talk about appointing a guardian for your children, it is worth talking to them about who they would prefer. Plan If is a campaign launched by the Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN). It encourages all parents to put plans in place in case they die before their children grow up. It has instructions on how to appoint guardians in different situations and helps you to make these difficult decisions.

Back to Relationships

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