How To Tell My Child They’re Dying

Having your child diagnosed with a terminal illness can be one of the most devastating and scary things for any parent to encounter. As a child becomes more aware, they may start to ask questions about their illness, which can add even more confusion, sadness, anger to you and your loved ones. Although there is no right time for a parent to bring this up to their child, there are strategies you can use to become prepared when the time does come. Taking certain steps can really help you navigate how to talk to your child about death and make it a meaningful conversation. 

Parents Holding Child

Why You Should Talk To Your Child About Death

When your child does start to ask questions about their illness, behave differently, or seem concerned about something, it is time to talk to your child about death. Some parents believe they can protect their child from the truth, however, children very easily pick up on their surroundings and will likely already be aware that something is wrong or they are dying. Without transparency and truthful information, children will start to imagine and make up reasons for why things are happening around them. This can lead to damaging thoughts that could be even more frightening and confusing. 

You also may want to talk to your child about the decisions being made. Children should have a say on how they say goodbye, who they want around them, and what they want to do with their remaining time. Although these conversations are extremely difficult, you can prepare together, as a family, and give your child the opportunity to feel heard. 

When To Talk To Your Child About Death

Although there will never be a perfect time to talk with your child about their terminal illness, it is possible to find the best time for you and them. It is best not to talk about these topics before school, bed, or a friend’s house. Rather, finding a safe place where you have uninterrupted time could be a much better option. Also, wait to talk to your child until they show signs they are ready like bringing up topics around death and hinting at these ideas. 

  • Create A Comfortable Environment

    • During this time, you can create a comfortable environment. It is important that you are not expecting company and that the child is in their comfort zone. You can engage in an activity they enjoy like drawing, playing a game, going on a walk or spending time with their animals. This can help relieve the pressure and allow for you and your loved ones to have some sort of peace. 
  • Understand your child’s diagnosis (so that you can explain it…)

    • Truly understanding your own child’s diagnosis can really help you explain it in a way they can understand. You can talk to doctors or other professionals to seek psychosocial support in learning how to talk to your child about their diagnosis.

How To Talk To Children About Death

Death is a complex topic and there are different tactics that you can use to make it easier to understand for you and your loved one. After talking with other doctors, nurses, psychologists, etc. you might find some of these tactics helpful as well: 

  • Look for teachable moments that come up in everyday life. That could be the death of a pet, illness or death that you read about in books or see on television/movies. 
  • Be direct and use realistic language with your child. It is important to be clear so they do not misinterpret what is happening to them. Instead of “going to sleep” or “passing away” you can use words like death and dying. 
  • Try to establish how your child is feeling by asking them open ended questions and not pressuring them to answer. They will process this in their own way but leaving open ended questions like “how did you feel when you saw Johnny’s dog die” can help them understand and process their own feelings. 

If your child has a hard time talking about the topics and seems to shut them down, pay attention to other ways you can bring it up without directly talking about them. For instance, they may find it easier to talk about someone in a picture or their grandma dying as a way to process their own death. 

Reassuring your child who is terminally ill is especially important. Letting them know they will not be alone, that they will be surrounded by their loved ones and be supported every step of the way can really be helpful. You can remind your child of the special things they have accomplished and let them know that suffering and pain goes away after death. Some children may feel guilty about leaving their family behind so it can be helpful to give them permission or make sure they know you love them and they don’t need to worry. 

How George Mark Children’s House Supports Dying Children

George Mark Children’s House can help you and your families through these difficult times in your child’s illness. We have programs that can help your child enjoy those last moments they have here with pediatric palliative aquatics, which helps soothe the nervous system, with fun and engaging activities like art, music, dancing, etc. We also provide supportive, ongoing counseling for individuals, couples and families as requested; link families to community services; coordinate care when returning home so necessary equipment or home care services are obtained; and help families coordinate funeral and memorial services, if needed.

With delicious home-cooked meals, care and attention from staff, individualized medical care, counseling, and programs for healing and grief, you will have all the support you need at George Mark Children’s Hospital. Learn more about how George Mark House can help your family.