Decorative image

What to tell children when someone is dying

Children find the death of a very close relative very hard. Knowing how to help and support your children before you die can help them cope afterwards.

What to tell the children in your life

A child’s reaction to hearing that someone they love is 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 might 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’re very young. And talking to children about cancer can be very difficult and upsetting.

It’s natural to want to spare them any worry or pain. But it’s important to explain things to them.

Plan what to say

It’s helpful to plan what you are going to say in advance. It can help to rehearse with a friend or with a health professional who knows you. 

Be honest

You might think it is best to delay telling the children. Or you might think it's kinder to let them believe that things will go back to normal soon. But it's usually best to be honest, using language they can understand and take in. 

Even if you don't tell children openly about what is happening, they'll usually know that something is seriously wrong. They pick this up from body language, things they hear and conversations suddenly stopping when they appear. Unless they’re told what’s happening, they can imagine things that are even worse than the reality.

Use simple language and repeat things

Keep explanations simple so they're easy for children to understand. And give them plenty of time to take in the information.

They also need time to ask questions. And you might need to answer the same question several times. This can be hard, but it can play a big part in helping the child understand and come to terms with what is happening.

Tell them they are not responsible for the illness

Young children especially might feel that they have somehow made you ill by getting angry with you or wishing you would go away.

Reassure them that this isn't possible, and that nothing they did has caused an illness or death.

Involve them

Involving children usually helps them cope better.

Your child’s other parent, or another relative or adult close to the family can play an important role. They can help to guide the child’s experience of coping with your situation. They also play a big part in supporting your child and preparing them for your death.

Last reviewed: 
05 Mar 2019
  • 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

  • Bereavement stressors and psychosocial well-being of young adults following the loss of a parent - A cross-sectional survey

    T Lundberg and others 

    European Journal of Oncology Nursing 2018 Volume 35, pages 33-38

  • Psychosocial outcomes in cancer-bereaved children and adolescents: A systematic review

    R Hoffman and others 

    Psychooncology 2018 Volume 27, Number 10, pages 2327-2338

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.