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Ashgate Hospice > Navigating loss: how to tell a child a loved one is dying or has died

The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult situations that we face. Breaking the news to a child can be an especially daunting task. As adults, we naturally want to shield children from pain and sadness, but honesty and openness is essential to help them understand and process their emotions. In this blog post, we’ll explore some gentle and compassionate ways to talk to a child about death and dying.

 

Choose the right time and place

When preparing to tell a child that someone they love is dying or has died, it’s important to choose an appropriate time and place for the conversation. Find a quiet, comfortable space where you can speak openly without distractions. Avoid delivering the news when the child is preoccupied with other activities. Make sure you have the time to stay with them for as long as they need.

 

Resources

Some children benefit from having a familiar object with them, such as a favourite teddy or toy. Stress and fidget toys are great to play with if a child is feeling anxious as they can help regulate their emotions.

 

Use clear and simple language

When explaining dying and death to a child, use clear and age-appropriate language that they can understand. Avoid using vague terms or explanations, as they may cause confusion or misunderstanding. For example, saying that someone has “gone to sleep” may seem a gentle phrase, but can make children frightened about going to sleep at bedtime. It is absolutely okay to say “dying”, “died” or “dead”. Although these words may feel difficult to say at first, children appreciate being given the correct words to use. There are no alternative meanings to these words that could cause them confusion.

Be honest and straightforward, but also sensitive and gentle in your approach. Focusing on the physical aspects of death can be helpful for young children. You could say something like, “Grandma is very poorly. The doctors and nurses have tried really hard to make her better, but her body is too poorly now. Very soon her body will stop working, and this means she will die. When someone dies it means they don’t need to breathe, or eat, or go to the toilet.”

There is a wealth of storybooks that can support children to understand death and dying. We have listed some of our favourites at the bottom of this blog.

 

Follow their lead

Children may react to this news in various ways, depending on their age, temperament, and previous experiences with loss. Very young children may accept what you are saying and then carry on playing. This is perfectly normal. If a loved one has died, young children may keep asking when they will next see them, or if they are still dead. This is because they do not understand that death is permanent. In this situation, gently remind them that the loved one has died and explain again what this means.

Older children may be angry or withdrawn as they process what has happened. They may want to be on their own, not go to school or lose interest in their favourite activities. These are all natural grief reactions. Follow the child’s lead and allow them to express their feelings and ask questions at their own pace. Don’t be afraid to let them see that you are sad; this will help them know that their emotions are also valid.

 

Be honest and answer questions truthfully

Encourage your child to ask questions and answer them truthfully and honestly as you can. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers – what matters most is that you’re there to support and comfort them.

 

Don’t be afraid to involve your child

Your child may worry about seeing their loved one when they are poorly; equally they may want to be with them even more. There is no right or wrong. If your child understands people can look different when they are poorly or may not be able to play with them as much, then it is okay for them to be involved. Children like to help, so there may be some tasks that they could get involved with.  This might include getting drinks, reading a book, or simply talking to their loved one about their day.

If your loved one has died, your child may find it helpful to be involved in planning their funeral. This could be choosing the colour of flowers or choosing music, for example.

Sometimes we aren’t sure if our children should attend the funeral. Again, there is no right or wrong. Funerals can help children come to terms with the death of a loved one. They may benefit from the love and support from other people attending the funeral. It can be helpful to have a friend or relative on hand to take your child out of the service if it does become too much.

 

Final thoughts and resources

Talking to children about death and dying is never easy, but with patience, compassion, and honesty, we can help them through the sadness. Offering support, reassurance, and unconditional love gives them the strength to deal with their feelings and find peace during difficult times.

 

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Why Do Things Die? by Katie Daynes and Christine Pym
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine by Diana Crossley and Kate Sheppard
You Will Be Okay by Julie Stokes
You Are Not Alone by Cariad Lloyd

 

Clair Russell

Blog post by Clair Russell, Children's and Young People's Services Manager

We hope you have found this blog post helpful.

If you need any further support or information, read more about the support offered by our Counselling team.

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