Assisting Families in Explaining Death to Children

In the context of family-centered care, it’s important to remember that children are a part of the equation when dealing with death and bereavement. Every family and situation is unique, and we must respect family’s wishes regarding disclosure of a family member’s death. However, families may approach staff for guidance on how, when and what to tell their children. It is therefore beneficial for hospital staff members to possess the knowledge and skills needed to support the families and children during such life-altering events.

  1. Ensure the child is told in a safe environment in the presence of someone they trust.
    • It’s best if this information comes from a trusted adult.
    • The child may not remember exactly what words were used, but they will likely always remember in whose lap they were sitting.
  2. Be aware of nonverbal cues as children readily pick up on this.
  3. Be honest and open.
    • Children are observant of changes (ex. Mom not being home, Grandpa crying frequently), so it’s important to share candid information.
  4. Avoid euphemisms.
    • Use the words “death,” “died,” etc.
    • Avoid phrases such as “sleeping with angels,” “passed away”, etc.
  5. Speak simply and clearly, giving factual, age-appropriate reasons for the person’s death.
    • Avoid non-essential details.
    • Avoid the word “sick” as the child might think they too will die the next time they are sick, instead explain why the body stopped working.
    • Explain that death means that the body will no longer function and is final.
  6. Silence is okay, the child may have questions, or they may need time to process the new information. Each child will respond in their own unique way.
    • Allow children opportunities for emotional expression.
    • Children are unique. It is okay for each child to deal with death differently.
  7. Prepare the children that they may see many people around them crying and upset.
    • Let families know that it’s okay, even encouraged, to cry in front of and share their feelings with their child as this can model appropriate grief behavior (also important to give kids permission not to cry).
  8. Involve the children.
    • Allow them to participate in planning the funeral if interested.
    • Have them draw a picture to leave in the person’s casket, write a letter to the deceased person, etc.