If you are in the end stage of caregiving, you and your family are all dealing with many emotions. And, if you have a young child or a teenager, you are also aware that children have a way of knowing when something is wrong, even from a young age.
Teaching children about death isn’t easy but when you share information about what’s happening, it’s better for everyone.
Rather than letting them use their imaginations to fill in the blanks with ideas that may be more frightening than the truth, by talking to your child about death you may be helping them to:
- Ease their fears of the unknown
- Better understand and deal with their mixed feelings
- Feel included and not isolated from what is happening
- And build trust towards what they are being told by adults
These are just a few general tips for caregivers on how to discuss death with a child. For additional support and advice we recommend you reach out to the palliative care professionals since they have special training on how to talk about death with a young child, youth and their families.
Start with what they know
Before discussing death with a child, first ask them to describe what they know about the situation. If you are unsure of how to do this, explore how your child is feeling by asking what they have noticed. For example, you could say, “You have probably noticed that Grandma is spending more time in bed lately. Have you been thinking about that?”
Starting where they leave off, describe the illness and how it works using clear, concrete language that is appropriate for their age level.
Check in often by asking if they understand what you’ve said, and if they have any questions or want to talk about how they may be feeling.
Ask your child if there is anything they have been wondering about. Reassure them that any questions or worries are okay.
Tell them there is nothing they could have done to cause (or avoid) or cure the illness in the person you are caring for. Reassure them that they cannot “catch” this illness.
Using clear, age-appropriate language with your child or teenager is very important to help them process any information about the illness or about death. Kids and teenagers are good at learning and using new words, but may not know their full meaning.
Always identify the disease by name: “Uncle Alex has a disease called cancer. The cancer and the treatments have been making him very sick.”
Your child may ask why the treatment that is supposed to make the person in your care feel better, actually did the opposite by making them feel worse or didn’t work at all – which is a fair and valid point. Explain to your child that the disease had already reached a point where the powerful treatments the person in your care tried no longer worked.
Death and dying are two concepts that even adults sometimes have a difficult time coming to terms with. Remember that you too are going through the grieving process, and you may not have all the answers to the questions that your child is asking.
It’s okay for you to say, “I don’t know” when the questions get too difficult to answer, either because you don’t know what the answer is or you’re not emotionally ready to process the death of the person in your care just yet.
Provide age-appropriate information about death
Very young children (infant – 2 years) are often comforted by maintaining their routine, being held, and by the presence of a favorite toy or blanket.
Young children (2 – 6 years) may ask questions so regardless of how difficult it may be, it is vitally important to answer their questions honestly and openly. It is remarkable how young children, and youth seem to be able to manage and adapt even in the face of major illnesses and death.
Children have active imaginations and may not fully understand the permanency of death. Reading storybooks, play-based activities and creating art may be helpful activities for young children to express feelings in open conversations.
Older children (6 – 12 years) are beginning to understand how the body works, what it means to have an illness and that death is final. As a caregiver, you might want to consider engaging youth and older children in activities that help them express how they feel about the illness or death. These activities might include writing or journaling, reading, art therapy, or play therapy.
Youth (13 – 18 years), like adults, will process a death in their own way and in their own time. Friends are an important part of their life and support groups can be very helpful to deal with emotions experienced by others in similar situations. Music and keeping a journal can also help teens and young adults express themselves.
Watch for cues
When talking to your child about death, pay attention to how they react to your emotions, or to what you say. If you notice a reaction, such as tears, ask them to tell you what it was that you said to make them react that way.
If they see you or other family members cry, explain that this is okay: “I am crying because I am sad that Grandpa has died. I miss him very much. We all feel sad when someone we love dies.”
When you do not have an answer, be honest and say so. Always thank them for asking hard questions. It is okay for children to know that adults do not have answers for everything.