Talking to young children and teens about end of life can be challenging. Here are seven tips to help you talk to children about death and dying.
Assess what your child already knows: Ask them, “What do you know about ____’s illness?” or, “Have you noticed any changes with ___?” Assessing what your child already understands can help guide the conversation and weed out any misconceptions they may have.
Provide honest and clear information:
• Younger kids: Use simple and concrete language like, “___ is very, very sick with something called ____, and they are going to die. Dying is when somebody’s body completely stops working. They won’t breathe, eat, sleep, feel pain, etc. anymore.”
• Preteens/teens: Use a more detailed response like, “____’s illness cannot be treated anymore, and they are not going to get better. They are dying. The health care team is going to focus on keeping ____ comfortable.”
Concepts to consider: Avoid using euphemisms, especially with younger kids, like “passed away,” “lost,” “sleeping,” or “gone away.” If you want to talk about specific religious or spiritual concepts, explain where the person’s physical body is going first (cremation, burial, etc.).
Prepare your child: Children of all ages do well with developmentally appropriate preparation for changes in the environment and in their loved ones. Use the five senses when explaining the changes, especially if your child is going to visit with their person. For example, “Grampy sleeps most of the day, but he can still hear you when you visit,” or “Aunt Kelly is not able to walk anymore and spends most of her time sitting in her chair.”
Create a space for questions and thoughts: Provide opportunities to check in and see if your child has any questions about end of life or their person. Remind them that you are there if they think of any. It is okay if you don’t know the answer to their questions. Simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that question right now, but I am going to work on finding out and will let you know.”
Validate your child’s emotions: Remind your child that it is okay to have any feelings regarding their loved one. Modeling your own emotions and coping strategies can be a great way to normalize anticipatory grief. For example, “Mommy is feeling really sad about ____ dying. I’m going to take a walk; would you like to come?”
Inform your child’s school: After having this conversation with your child, inform their school staff so they can keep an eye out for any changes in behaviors and be an extra layer of support.
If you have questions or concerns about explaining end of life to children and teens, please call us at 855-774-5100 or email [email protected]. Also see our Children’s Programs page and our Telling the Kids booklet for more information.
About the authors
Samantha McCarthy, MS, CCLS, is Children’s Program Manager, and Sarah Bujold, MS, CCLS, is Certified Child Life Specialist for Care Dimensions.
Since 1978, Care Dimensions, formerly Hospice of the North Shore, has provided comprehensive and compassionate care for individuals and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. As the non-profit leader in advanced illness care, we offer services in over 100 communities in Massachusetts.