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Dying Matters Week: How do we talk to children about death?

Blog post   •   May 13, 2020 08:00 BST

Rebecca Scalzo –Head of Children's Services

Written by Rebecca Scalzo – Head of Children's Services.

Preparing a child for the death of a loved one, supporting a child after a loved one has died, or helping a child to prepare for their own death is an important and vital part of the work within children’s hospice services. Many adults find this task extremely difficult and very painful, often bringing to the surface their own experiences of loss.

Many people try to avoid having these difficult conversations with children for fear of causing distress or upset to their child, yet we know that children are extremely good at sensing when something is wrong and without the opportunity to ask questions their fears about what might be happening can become much worse. Very often, children overhear adult conversations about a family member being unwell, or even conversations about they themselves being seriously unwell. How can we give children the opportunity to talk about death in a safe way, where they can ask questions and express their worries or wishes to help them to make sense of what is happening?

From our experience we know that giving opportunities to talk about death can be enormously helpful for the child who has questions about their unwell brother or sister, their parent or grandparent who is dying, or who may have very important things they want to say or do before their own death. We also know from experience how difficult this can be for families.

One difficulty is in acknowledging our own experience and relationship to death as adults. Is it something that we fear? Something that brings up very painful memories and feelings? Or perhaps we have had a positive experience of talking about death and dying with trusted adults.

Think about what your child may need to know, or is already asking about, and how that information can be given to them in a way that they are able to make sense of. A child’s age and developmental stage will guide you as to what they are able to understand.

Death is an unavoidable part of life and children will hear about it in lots of different ways: at school, on TV, the cat bringing in a dead mouse, or maybe death of their own pet. Use these opportunities to introduce the topic as something that can be talked about openly. Helping a child to understand what death is and what happens when people die can greatly reduce their fears and anxiety and prepare them for the death of their own loved one or even their own death. By being open and honest, acknowledging and naming the emotions, the child will not feel alone but instead will feel ‘heard’.

There are lots of resources available to help you to talk to your child about death and dying which are free to download.

Here are some good places to start:

Dying Matters website

Winston’s Wish website

Child Bereavement UK website

Clic Sargent website

If you would like to find out more about ellenor’s children services please contact us on 01474 320007 or visit our Children's Hospice Care webpage. Our team of highly skilled professionals provide services to children and their families through the most difficult time of their lives.