Talking with your child about a terminal illness and dying, whether it’s your own illness or someone close to you, will probably be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll have. It’s important for children to understand what’s happening and to be prepared for what will happen when someone close to them dies.
Use clear and accurate language. Be calm and factual
It’s easy to want to soften the words you use when talking about death. But saying things like “we lost Daddy” or “Grandad has gone to be with the angels”, can be confusing for children. They may think they can go and find Daddy, or Grandad chose to go with the angels instead of staying here with them.
Using words such as death and dying can help children to help understand the finality of death. Younger children may not fully comprehend what death means, but they may understand it means they won’t see the person again.
Bring it into the conversation gradually
If you or someone close to you is dying, your child may be aware something out of the ordinary is happening. You may find it easier if you gradually bring up the topic of death and what it means for them. Talking about things over time can help your child to slowly process what’s going on.
Try not to give your child too much information; sometimes a little bit of information here and there is helpful. Talking with your child while you’re doing something, for eg driving in the car or while you’re making dinner together, is less overwhelming than sitting down for a long conversation.
Be guided by your child’s questions
Listen to the questions and answer them. Don’t answer what they haven’t asked.
Children process information differently than adults. Some children may be worried about how the death of you or someone close to them will impact on their day to day life. They might have questions such as “who is going to take me to school when you die?” or “do I still get to go and see my friends?”. They will often then get on with other things and then raise questions another time when curious.
Answer your child’s questions honestly and let them know you’re always available to answer more questions.
Let them know it's okay to cry and okay not to cry.