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Preparing a child or young person for a Covid-19 related death

Throughout this pandemic, the overwhelming amount of death and loss has been devastating. The way in which families are losing relatives, suddenly, traumatically, and with lack of ritual, can make talking to a child or young person about their death even harder than it would be under other circumstances.

In a situation like this, preparing children or young people for the death of a loved one is possibly the hardest thing anyone will do. With Covid-19 meaning there can be no hospital visits, video calling may be the way You will most likely be managing your own shock and distress, making these necessary conversations an even more daunting prospect.

Every family and their situation is different, so we can offer individual support that is most helpful to you and your family we encourage you to call our Helpline on 0808 8020 111. At Grief Encounter we know from experience that you know your child best, so it is important to hear from you first and then we can think together about what approach might be appropriate.

However, we appreciate you may not be quite ready to make the call, and therefore offer the following thoughts and suggestions.

  • Allow yourself some time to cope with your own feelings following news that end of life is imminent. Although there will never be a right time to talk to the children, it is helpful to prepare yourself as much as is possible; practise how you will tell them (perhaps with another adult), think about the kind of questions they may have and consider who else you might want with you.
  • In most circumstances being honest with children in an age appropriate way is the best approach. Being vague may lead to fears that you are hiding something even worse. It is fine to say that you don’t have the answers to all their questions. If it is something factual or medical that they want to know you could say that you will try to find out and let them know.
  • Be aware that children may be particularly alert to adult conversations at this time and may overhear things that they do not fully understand, leading them to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
  • You may prefer to have someone else with you when you tell your child or possibly want this person to do the talking. This is something that you need to judge for yourself but if possible it is helpful to be present yourself so you know what has been said and the children see an open conversation.
  • Choose a time when people will have some space afterwards to be alone or do their own thing. Children will quite often resume their normal pastimes – watching TV, playing football, computer games – which can feel strange to adults but is very normal. Just before bedtime is best avoided.
  • Try to be open to different responses, things may not go exactly as you plan; children can react very differently sometimes even appearing as if they are not that upset. They may have many questions or none at all. An emotional response can come hours or even days later.
  • Although you may be telling children of different ages it is best to tell them together if you can. This will help avoid younger children feeling that they are getting different information or are not as important. You could say that you will be able to speak to them individually if they want to but that you wanted to talk as a family first.
  • It is important for your child’s teachers and other care givers to be aware of what is happening and to know what your child has been told. Let your children know who you have told and why. It may be appropriate to involve teenagers in a discussion about who they would like to know and what kind of support they feel they need from their school/college.
  • Every family will have their own belief systems and ideas about what happens to us all after we die, but it is important that people around your child are consistent in how they talk about death and what may happen after death. Phrases such as ‘go to sleep’, ‘pass away’ and ‘go to a better place’ can be confusing, leading to feelings of abandonment and worries about sleep.

How different ages may respond and understand death 

  • Even very young children (under 3) will sense when 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 years may respond similarly to younger children (as above) and naturally it is important that teachers and other care givers are aware of the situation and what your child has been told. Children in this age group can vary enormously in their understanding of the world and your instinct as a parent is crucial. Most likely your child 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 you and if you will be in pain. They may also still experience irrational thoughts and emotions around how they might have caused the illness or how they could somehow change what will happen.
  • Teenagers will most likely be characteristically unpredictable and volatile in their responses to hearing that a loved one is dying. Some may feel that they need to spend every minute with you, whilst others may distance themselves from you in a way that can feel hurtful and rejecting. Giving them space to process their changing emotions whilst trying to maintain usual boundaries and rules will help them to feel safe at such a confusing time.
  • Adults will naturally be aware that young children need information to be expressed gradually and in clear language but it is important to also be aware that older children and teenagers will also need time to process. It may be better to limit what you tell them in an initial conversation and offer to speak again when they are ready.

Some important things to let your child know

That it is not their 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 that person alive.

That there is no right or wrong way to respond to what you have told them, this will allow feelings to be honestly and openly expressed.

Most importantly, be clear that this conversation is a starting point and that they can ask questions and talk to you (or suggested other named people) about it anytime.

Things to do

Many children will respond well to being given small jobs to help such as getting things for you or tidying.

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.

Creating a memory box can help to create and preserve treasured memories. Involving your child in making this memory box can be a precious memory in itself but of course a difficult and painful thing to do. Don’t try to do all in one go and make sure you have some support for yourself.

Get in touch with us on our helpline, 0808 802 0111, or connect on our live webs chat service at www.griefencounter.org.uk for more advice and support, free and confidentially.