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.