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“What am I supposed to tell them?” Preparing children for the death of a loved one

14 May 2021

Meet Sally and Sam, Children’s Therapeutic Practitioners at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice. They work with children and young people when a loved one is living with a life-limiting illness or when they have sadly died.  For Dying Matters Awareness Week, they share their insight into how children grieve and what families can do to help kids feel safe, respected and comforted during the most difficult of times.

Our job is to help families prepare the children for the loss of a parent or loved one as well as to create memories. Parents often ask us: “What am I supposed to tell them?” We always advise to be as open and honest with children as possible and to involve them in what’s going on.

Children can cope with pain and trauma, but they struggle with trust. More often than not, a child will know something is wrong. They see that Mum or Dad’s usual routine is completely off or they might have overheard them crying. They need to feel safe with trust. We advise families to tell them the facts: “Dad’s been diagnosed with cancer and he is going to die.” We help with age appropriate words to describe illness so that children can understand things properly.

Working with children can be quite refreshing as they ask the questions we often shy away from, like “When will my mummy die?” “Where will she be?” “Who will be with her?” “Will she be in pain?” We tell parents to encourage children to ask questions and if they don’t know the answer, we suggest they ask the nurse together.

Sometimes children can have misconceptions about someone’s death

A child might grow up thinking that they caused their parent’s death somehow. They can carry these stresses and worries for years. We encourage them to share their worries and we iron out any misconceptions to stop them from carrying unnecessary baggage.

It does help to tell children how long a dying person has left. These act as warning shots, so the child is prepared for when their loved one passes away. Children need to have a narrative in order to heal, so it’s important to involve them. Parents naturally sugar-coat difficult things for their children, it’s a natural part of the parental instinct. But it only protects them in the short-term and can cause problems for the child in the future. As painful as they are, frank conversations need to happen. Kids can cope with sadness and trauma when they have people around them.

Children’s grief is very different to adults’

One minute they can be absolutely fine running around the playground, the next moment they might collapse in a heap in floods of tears. It’s known as ‘puddle jumping’ and is actually a very healthy way to process emotions. That’s why It’s a very good idea to have children present at funerals; they bring light and joy and aren’t afraid to have moments of happiness in their grief.

Memory making is something we are passionate about. When someone dies we have to create a new way of remembering them and keeping them in our thoughts and lives. To listen to your mum say good night to you when you close your eyes at bedtime even when she is no longer here, can be so helpful. She will be their mum for the rest of their lives whether here or not, so we strongly encourage leaving messages for children. It can bring so much comfort at such a difficult time.

Objects and keepsakes are helpful in the grieving process

At the start of life you keep all the things that kids do, their paintings, their first shoes, so many things. We need to practise this at the end of life to keep people’s memories close when they die.

We supported a little boy recently whose grandma was on the inpatient unit at the Hospice in her final days. They had a very close bond so the impact of her loss was going to be huge for him. We gave gran a knitted heart to hold for a while and sprayed some of her perfume on it. When the family broke the news to the little boy that his gran had died, they gave him the knitted heart, so straight away he had something special to keep that reminded him of her.

The ‘goodbye time’ –the time from when you know your loved one is dying to when the funeral takes place – stays with families for years. It’s important to make it warm and memorable, as it brings great comfort. We often tell the children to collect all the cards from the flowers at the funeral and make them into a scrap book. Keeping things makes memories tangible.

Not every family wants or needs support, sometimes we will support them by giving them our leaflets, such as our booklet The Ground Feels Wobbly or advice over the phone.

Thanks Sally and Sam for sharing your expertise. If you’d like to talk to someone about how we can help your child through this difficult time, please contact Sally 07966 165215 on or Sam 07980 785194 or email us using