TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT DYING & DEATH by Dr Rachel Fearnley

Talking to children about dying and death is something that we, as adults, often struggle to contemplate. It is even more difficult when we are talking to them about the death of someone close, whether that is a family member, friend of the family or member of the local community. There are different barriers that can impede these conversations from going ahead, for example

  • They are too young to know;
  • They won’t understand
  • It will upset them too much to know what is happening
  • I don’t know what to say to them
  • How can I begin to have such a difficult conversation?

As you will see the last two barriers relate to our concerns and our, perceived or real, difficulties in talking to children about dying and death.

No matter how difficult we feel it is to talk about dying and death to children, and how much we believe that we are protecting them from the pain of what is occurring, not knowing is always more difficult and more painful for them than knowing. If your family has recently experienced a death it is likely that there are many changes to family life which the children will have observed even if they are unaware of the causes. The children will probably have witnessed the different and difficult emotions that are being experienced in the family and will have been party to what I call ‘second-hand information’. This is often inaccurate and patchy information that actually increases anxiety and fear in children.

Research evidences that children generally want to know what is happening following a death and that when they are provided with age appropriate information they are better able to manage the situation. The key here is about giving them age appropriate information in a way that they can easily understand. It is important to use clear language that does not include euphemisms – telling a child that ‘name of person has gone to sleep’ or that ‘we have lost name of person’ is likely to engender misunderstanding and fear. Children, especially younger ones, often place very literal meanings to things they hear and as a consequence will believe that the person has gone to sleep. Naturally then the question is why don’t you go and wake them up, or cause the children to become sleep phobic.

When talking to children about dying and death it is helpful to remember that it is highly likely that you will need to repeat the information over a period of time. Children need time to process the information and will probably ask questions about what they have been told. Younger children may appear to have understood what they have been told and then ask ‘so when is name of person coming home’. This is not a sign of them being disrespectful or of having not listened; it is about their level of understanding and stage of development. Also don’t be surprised, if after you have told them about the death, they ask if they can go out to play or question what is for the evening meal. This again is a typical coping mechanism and not an indication that they do not care.

Being in the midst of the emotions and turmoil of the death of someone special can be very difficult for adults to cope with and this is exacerbated when they have children in the family who still need support, love and care. However, it is important that their needs are considered and that they are included in information sharing about what has happened. Talking about your feelings and concerns with the staff from Chester Pearce Associates will help you explore some of these difficulties. They will be able to be alongside you during this most difficult and stressful period and offer appropriate support about talking to your children and including them in the chaos and turmoil that death brings to families.