first steps

Preparing children or young people for the death of a loved one is possibly the hardest thing anyone will do. You will most likely be managing your own shock and distress, making these necessary conversations an even more daunting prospect. Although we can offer advice about how you might talk about an expected death, every family and their situation is different. You know your children best, so it is important to trust your instincts as well as take advice. Allow yourself time to process your own feelings and to prepare yourself as much as is possible; practise how you will tell them and think about the kind of questions they may have. It is advisable to have someone with you so you can share the talking if one of you becomes overwhelmed. When possible, it is helpful for the ill person to be present so children see an open conversation and everyone knows what has been said.

An initial conversation with children:

  • Although you may be telling children of different ages it is best to initially talk to them together if possible
  • At this time all children, even teenagers will need information to be expressed gradually and in clear language
  • Let them know that this conversation is a starting point and that they can ask questions and talk to you whenever they need to
  • Choose a time when they will be able to be alone or do their own thing afterwards. Often children will go back to watching TV or playing which can feel strange but is normal
  • The start of the weekend is often appropriate, but just before going out or bedtime is best avoided
  • Be honest, in an age appropriate way. Being vague may lead to fears that you are hiding something even worse
  • Expect different responses, children can react very differently, sometimes even appearing as if they are not that upset. An emotional response can come hours or even days later
  • They may have many questions or none at all and it is fine to say that you don’t have all the answers. If their question is medical you could say that you will try to find out and let them know

second steps

After this initial conversation children will begin to process what is happening. Sometimes their focus will be on what it means for them and at others their concerns will switch to the family and their loved one. Be aware that children may be particularly alert to adult conversations and may overhear things that they do not fully understand, leading them to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Regularly checking in with your child about what they think is going on and how they are feeling will let them know that you are OK to talk about it. Often children are reluctant to mention ‘it’ thinking they will upset or remind people. Now is an important time for teachers and other care givers to be made aware of what is happening and what your child has been told. Children should know who you have told and it may be appropriate to ask teenagers who they would like to know at their school.

Some things to let them know as you continue the conversation:

  • That it is not anybody’s fault and there is nothing they or anyone else could have done differently to change what is happening
  • That everyone including the doctors and nurses have done everything they can but that there are no medicines that can keep you/the person living
  • That there is no right or wrong way to feel, everybody is feeling lots of different things all at once
  • That they cannot catch the illness and that it is ok for them to cuddle or touch you/the person (if this is the case)
  • Talk about how you/the person would like them to be; for example, if you/they would like help with everyday things they need to hear this. Similarly, if you/they want no special treatment they need to hear this too
  • If there are going to be any immediate changes to their routines, such as who takes them to school, be open about this as children may feel awkward about asking how it is going to affect them
  • If treatment or the progression of illness may bring changes to the personality it is important for this to be explained so that children understand it is not because of anything that they do

Third steps

As you navigate through the immense challenges of supporting your children it can become increasingly relevant to keep age and development in mind. Younger children respond well to being given jobs to help such as getting things or tidying. Where appropriate, older children may benefit from being a part of some discussions with health professionals, helping them to feel less shut out. If your child’s main carer or home will change, they need to know you are thinking about this, even if you are not exactly sure what will happen. Whatever their age, never assume they know who will look after them and where they will live. Most families have their own belief systems about what happens to us all after we die but may not have discussed this before. This may be the time to think about what you want communicated to your child so that there is consistency. In our experience phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ and ‘gone to a better place’ are confusing for children, often leading to feelings of abandonment and sleep problems.

Naturally children mature differently, but the following is a general guide:

  • Under 3’s will sense something serious is going on. Young children express fear and confusion through behaviours not words and may therefore become more challenging or have difficulties with sleeping, toileting or feeding
  • Children from 3-6 most likely will know the words death and dying but will probably not have a real understanding of its permanence, imagining that you can return or will be somewhere else
  • Children aged 7-12 have a more realistic understanding of death but this can cause them to worry about what will happen to their loved one, such as weather they be in pain. They may still experience irrational thoughts around how they might have caused the illness or can somehow change what will happen
  • Teenagers will most likely be characteristically unpredictable and volatile in their responses. Some may feel that they need to spend every minute with the person whilst others may distance themselves in a way that can feel hurtful and rejecting

The Grief Encounter helpline, grieftalk can be contacted from 9am – 9pm Monday to Friday. The grieftalk helpline number is 0808 802 0111, or you can chat online or even email us now, we are here to listen.