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How to Help Children Understand Serious Illness and Death

If a family member or other loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness or is dying, it can be challenging to come to terms with what is happening. It can be even more difficult when children are close to your loved one. Even during these hard times, being honest and open with children is always the best approach. Having knowledge about what is happening empowers both adults and children to understand what is happening, removing some of the fear around the situation. 

Children are usually more aware of what is happening than we realize, so it is important to keep them involved and help them grieve. The earlier children are involved, the more they can feel as though they can do special things with their loved one, creating special memories, and being a part of the journey. There are several steps you can take to help children be part of the process and be prepared for what is to come. 

  • Tell the child your loved one is ill
  • Tell the child the name of the disease
  • Assure them that your loved one is being cared for
  • Provide the best understanding of what may happen

Depending on the age of the child, you do not need to share every detail. Use your best judgment to tailor the information to what your child can understand and needs to know. It is also alright to cry in front of your children. Let them know that you are crying because you are sad and that is OK if they need to cry as well. 

Be prepared for questions as children often don’t fully understand what it is like to lose a loved one or experience never seeing someone they love again. Children can more easily accept and understand what is happening if they are part of the conversation. Younger children may benefit from a play-based activity to help the child be more comfortable before you talk to them about what is happening. Using animals to help them understand and relate, or books or movies they are familiar with can be useful. 

Older children and teenagers can be more involved in helping to care for their loved one. They can help with chores, make meals, care for younger siblings or cousins, or assist with direct care. Create an environment where open discussion is allowed and talking about feelings is accepted. What is most important regardless of age is to always tell the truth. 

If the child asks you or your loved one if they will die, there are several ways to respond: 

  • Acknowledge that death is a possibility
  • Help them focus on living out each day, not dwelling on what is to come
  • Tell them that worrying about death cannot prevent it from happening
  • Do not lie or make promises that cannot be kept

Until the time comes, there are ways to help the child cope and continue to live in a healthy way: 

  • Keep a normal routine as much as possible
  • Keep the child up-to-date on your loved one 
  • Make space for listening and sharing 
  • Allow the child to help when they would like to
  • Find a balance between outside responsibilities and home
  • Talk to care providers, teachers, or school counselors about what is happening to make them aware
  • Let them participate in activities with your loved one as much as they are able, such as reading, watching tv, talking, playing games, or just sitting with them

Helping children and teens through their first grieving experience can be challenging, but helping them be involved can help the time turn into a meaningful experience. Children are resilient, so be honest and reach out for help if you need it. 

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