Supporting children when a close relative is dying
On this page we talk about how to support and help children whose parents are dying. There is information about
The death of a very close relative is very hard for children. Knowing how to help and support your children before you die can help them cope after your death.
A child’s reaction to hearing that you are going to die will depend very much on their age and stage of development. No two children will react in exactly the same way. Children sometimes seem to cope with such situations better than adults. This is probably because children tend to live in the moment. You may find that they won’t look ahead and worry about what it really means to lose someone they love. But it will still have a big impact on them.
It is not always easy to decide what to tell children, especially if they are very young. Whether they are your own children, family members, or children of friends, you won’t want to worry them. Talking to children about cancer can be very difficult and upsetting. It is natural to want to spare them any hurt or pain.
You may think it is best to delay telling them, or kinder to let them believe that things will go back to normal soon. But it is usually best to be honest, using language they can understand and take in. Sometimes it is helpful to plan what you are going to say in advance. If you don't tell children openly about what is happening, they will inevitably know that something is seriously wrong. They pick this up from body language, things that they hear, and conversations suddenly stopping when they appear. If they are not told what is happening they can imagine things that are even worse than the reality.
It is very important to give children simple explanations they can understand, and plenty of time to absorb information. They also need time to ask questions and you may need to answer the same question several times. It can be very difficult to have to repeat information but it can play a big part in helping the child understand and come to terms with what is happening.
Children often need reassurance that nothing they did caused an illness or death. Young children especially may feel that they have somehow made you ill by getting angry with you or wishing you would go away.
Involving children usually helps them cope better. If it is a parent who is ill, the healthy parent plays a very important role in guiding the children’s experience of coping with the ill parent. They also play a big part in supporting the children and preparing them for the death.
Children may ask questions that you find very hard to answer. But trying to find a way to answer them can give everyone in the family the chance to express their emotions. It also means that you may have to think about difficult issues that may otherwise not be talked about.
It can be helpful to think about what kind of questions your child might ask, and how you could answer them. Below are some questions that they may ask, and some suggestions of what you could say.
What is death? Why do people die?
You can explain that when someone is ill, doctors can usually make them better. But sometimes the doctors cannot make people better. People die when their body stops working. This might be because they have a very serious illness which has damaged their body, or because they have had a very serious accident. Or their body may be worn out because they are very old.
Will mummy / granny come back after she dies?
It is important that young children know that when someone dies, you cannot do anything to bring them back.
Am I going to die as well?
You shouldn’t dismiss these fears, as they are very real for the child. Telling a child why someone has died can make them less scared. You can also explain that cancer is not catching. You can say that most people die when their body stops working because they are old and their bodies get worn out. When a young person is ill, doctors can usually make them better. It is very unusual for a young person to die.
Is it my fault?
Children often feel guilty that somehow they may have caused the death. You can tell them that nothing they did or said made the person ill or die.
What will happen to me?
You can reassure your child that you are thinking about this, and it is very important to you that they are looked after. You can tell them who they will live with, and who will be there for them.
These questions can be heartbreaking to hear. But try to stay calm and answer them on the child’s level. Try to be honest, open and use words and images that the child can understand.
It can sometimes help to answer by asking children what they think will happen. Always be as honest as you can and don’t be afraid to say that you don’t have an answer to certain questions. Make sure you listen to what they have to say and reassure them often about how much you love them. Tell them that they will not be left alone. Young children in particular need reassurance that their life will go on no matter what happens. They will still have their friends round to play, go to school, and be able to do the day to day things that make life secure and stable for them.
The main issues when dealing with children younger than 5 are that they may
- Fear being separated from their loved ones
- Feel guilty
- Not understand what death is, and that you will never come back
But children will understand that something is wrong. They live in the moment, so what is happening at the time is what is important to them. Their sadness or anxiety may come out in ways that are not easy to see. For example, through the way they move and play.
A quiet child may become loud, throw toys around, and appear very angry. A normally happy and confident child may become clingy or cry at things that did not bother them before. They may withdraw from playing with other children as much as they used to. It is important to notice these signs and changes and support your child as best you can.
Experts encourage adults to talk openly and honestly with very young children. This doesn’t mean that you need to tell them everything in depth. But you can use simple language and explain things they don’t understand.
Children aged between 8 and 12 can usually understand that serious illness may lead to death. Again, their feelings may come out through the way they play and react to situations. Feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, confusion, anxiety and fear are all common.
Be sensitive but straightforward when talking to children of this age. If you are too subtle, they will not understand what you are trying to say. Children between 8 and 12 years old can feel guilty when a parent is seriously ill. They may feel it is somehow their fault. They may also feel angry with the parent for not being able to give them enough attention. Or because you are going to leave them when you die. It helps to recognise that children of all ages can react as if they were much younger when they are feeling stressed.
The teen years are full of emotional ups and downs. Teenagers can feel confused and unsure about themselves. The teenage years are also a time to establish independence. This can make it difficult for adolescents to express their feelings and look to other people for support.
They may become distant from their family and talk to their friends instead. Or they may keep it all to themselves. They may become anxious, angry, moody, or depressed. Or they may pretend that they are coping very well when actually inside they feel very scared and lonely.
A teenager’s reactions are likely to be more intense than an adult's. It is very important to give them time to grieve about the illness, and to include them in what is happening. They may find it helpful to look at the riprap website, which is for young people when a parent has cancer. On the website they can find stories from other young people in similar situations.
It can be very difficult to know whether to send your children to school each day when someone in the family may die soon. You will probably feel like keeping them at home to be with their loved one as much as possible.
But keeping some routine in your child’s life can help them to feel more stable and safe. It may help them to go to school and see that normal life can continue, even though things are changing at home. There may also be days when keeping them home just feels like the right thing to do.
Talk to your child’s teacher about what is going on at home. You don’t have to tell them anything in detail if you don’t want to. But if they know generally what’s happening, teachers can
- Understand why your child is behaving in a certain way
- Give the support your child needs
- Help to plan when to tell your child’s friends and classmates what they are going through
If you have older children, be sure to ask them what they want you to do. Teenage children might choose to tell their teachers themselves. They may not want their teachers to know at all because they don’t want the attention or to be thought of as different from the other children. Reassure your teenager that their teacher can help and won’t tell anyone else without your child’s permission. Older children may feel more comfortable talking to a close friend or older relative, rather than their teachers. But if you can, do try to convince them that the school needs to know about any major changes in a pupil’s life.
It is important that children are able to let out their feelings and concerns. Talking can help. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about illness in your family, you can find someone that your child trusts and can talk to. Many hospitals, hospices and community cancer services have psychologists or social workers who can help to support children.
Of course, adult children will also struggle at times. Even when children are grown up, the death of a parent is one of the most difficult things to cope with. It can help to be as open and honest as possible, even with adult children, and include them in the situation. It may help to read the section on our website about the reactions of adults close to you.
Specialist support websites can be very helpful for older children who have a close relative who is ill or dying. These sites contain useful information. They often have forums or chat rooms where children in similar situations can contact each other.
Please make sure you know what your children are looking at, and who they are talking to, on the internet. We have looked at these sites before adding these links, but we can't check all the material they contain. It is not possible to know exactly who is using the forums or chat rooms. It is your responsibility to check that the material your children are accessing is suitable for them.
Kids Connected is an American site aimed at children aged between 5 and 18. Children affected by cancer help each other on the site, which has a chat room.
These booklets by Macmillan Cancer Support contain useful information about what to tell children when an adult has cancer, and how children cope.
- Talking to children when an adult has cancer
- What do I tell the children? A guide for a parent with cancer
You can order the booklets from Macmillan.
Your local social services may provide support and counselling services for children in this situation.
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For general information and support
Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday)
Share experiences on our online forum with Cancer Chat
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