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Children's questions about dying

Children can ask quite difficult questions when someone is dying. You might find it helpful to prepare and think what you are going to say. 

Your child’s questions can be heartbreaking to hear. But try to stay calm and answer them on the child’s level.

Try to be honest and open, and to use words and images that the child can understand. 

Children can ask questions that you and other adults might not otherwise talk about. But trying to find a way to answer these questions can give everyone in the family the chance to express their emotions.

Some things that might help

You might find it helpful to:

  • ask the child what they think will happen
  • be as honest as you can, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have an answer to a question
  • listen to what they have to say
  • tell them often how much you love them
  • reassure them that they won’t 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 everyday things that make life secure and stable for them.

Questions a child might ask

Here are some questions your child might ask and some suggestions for 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 can't 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 might 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 can't do anything to bring them back.

Am I going to die as well?

You need to acknowledge these fears, as they are very real for the child.

Explaining why someone has died can make them less scared. You can also explain that cancer is not catching.

Tell the child that most people die when their body stops working because they are old. Say that 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 might have caused the death. Reassure them that nothing they did or said made the person ill or die.

What will happen to me?

Explain to your child that it’s very important to you that they will be looked after. You can tell them who they will live with and who will be there for them.

Help and support for your children

Last reviewed: 
11 May 2016
  • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer (CSG4)
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2004

  • Adolescent grief: "It never really hit me...until it actually happened"
    GH.Christ (and others)
    Journal of the American Medical Association. 2002 Sep 11;288 (10):1269-78

  • Current approaches to helping children cope with a parent's terminal illness
    GH.Christ and AE. Christ 
    A Cancer Jounal for Clinicians. 2006 Jul-Aug;56 (4):197-212 

  • Outpatient management of Advanced Cancer - Symptom control, Support, and Hospice in the Home
    BJ. Andrew
    J.B Lippincott Company, 1985

Information and help

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