Talking to Children about Death and Dying

Talking to Children about Death and Dying


“……one of the good things about those illnesses…that enables us to predict when a person will die is that they give the family of the dying person time to prepare themselves for the event…one of the bad things if that the family often fail to take this opportunity….”   


Parkes (1996:100)


Unfortunately some gynecological cancers are incurable. Telling your child that you will not recover from the cancer is one of the most difficult things any parent will have to endure in this world. There is no easy way. It is important that you take sometime to come to terms with the news yourself before talking to your child/children about it. Similarly to the above an honest approach is best and using language that is age appropriate. Perhaps this is the child’s first introduction to death or perhaps they have an awareness of the concept though a relative dying or a pet for example. Either way, it is going to be difficult news for them to hear. Children are heavily influenced by parental emotional responses. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get the emotional response that you were expecting, children can often deter tears for later on and maybe more shocked initially than upset.


It is important to use the words “death, dying and dead” to a child. Phases like “there is nothing more that can be done” is unclear and leads to confusion. Explain the treatments that have been tried and how they no longer can cure the cancer. Refer to the physical changes that will take place, such as loss of strength, fatigue or change in ability. If there are no visible signs explain that scans/tests show that the disease has spread. This demonstrated “proof” to the child that the medical team has been doing all that they can but despite all this, the cancer cannot be contained.


Explaining to the child that there are medicines that can assist with the physical symptoms, which can be hugely beneficial in controlling pain and nausea etc.  Explain what the term Palliative Care means; that the focus is on keeping people comfortable and minimizing suffering. Helping them to feel better rather than getting better.


Ask if they are worried about anything? Children may have feelings and thoughts that adults may find strange. It is important to create a space that is safe for them to share their thoughts and feelings, even if it is very painful for adults to talk about it. When children ask hard questions be honest in your reply. Be prepared to repeat your responses over and over again as your child may ask the same question in a different way many times.


Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”, there are many mysteries associated with death and dying in the adult world and so too in the child’s world. Management of the uncertainty associated with terminal illness is something that adults and children struggle with. Demonstrate that you are there to support them, no matter how upset they are or what questions they ask. Explain that it is common to feel an array of emotions and it is important to share them.  Healthy ways for children to express their feelings is through arts, crafts, sports, music, dance, writing and talking to those who they trust.  It is important to goal set as a family, plan for events, outing and occasions where special memories can be made together.


Checking in with them often is key, ask them to repeat their understanding of what information that have heard.  Assure them that no question is off limits.

Last modified: Tuesday, 20 September 2016, 9:49 PM