It may go against adults' protective instinct, but children need to know what has happened as soon as possible. Children are very perceptive and sensitive. They may be aware that something serious has happened before you tell them. Having you or another caregiver who your child can trust is fundamentally important to your child's psychological well-being, particularly at a time of intense whanau/family distress. Talking to children helps them to trust you and helps them to make sense of what is happening in their world.
If there is another adult available, share the news and plan to be together when telling the tamariki/children.
Review what has happened and think about how you can share the news in simple language that your child will understand. It can be helpful to write down the facts to support the conversation you will have.
Even very young children (under 2 years) will need an explanation of what they are seeing around them, to help them start to understand what has happened.
Take a moment to take some deep slow breaths.
Try to keep your focus in the moment, thinking about how you would want the children to hear the news about their whanau member/loved one's death.
Think about your child's age and their understanding.
What do they already know? News is best heard from a family member, but this is a very difficult conversation to have. If you feel unable to say the words, consider being in close by while someone else familiar to the whanau explains what has happened.
Think about your child's age and their understanding. What do they already know?
Babies and toddlers don’t have an understanding of death or language to be able to express their feelings. They experience loss, separation and distress through their environment and the people around them.
Pre-schoolers also have limited language and reasoning and may find it difficult to understand that death is permanent. They can feel insecure and frightened when things at home change. Pre-schoolers often have 'magical' thinking - thinking that their family member can come alive again.
Children between the ages of 5-12 years are still developing a mature understanding of death and may have some confusing thoughts about it. Younger children in this age group may still have some 'magical' thinking and may also be concerned about the person who has died being lonely, cold or hungry (still being able to feel). This age group is often very interested in what happens to the body after death and can ask direct questions that can be difficult for adults to hear. A growing understanding that death is universal (happens to everyone) can mean that this age group can be worried that someone else may die or that they themselves may die.
Children between the ages of 10-12-years generally understand the concepts of death, that it is final, irreversible and universal. This is a time of social, hormonal and physical change. Young people may be more aware of how other people and adults are reacting to the death.
Teenagers know that death is a part of life. (It can be challenging to manage the demands of adolescence alongside a time of emotional intensity.)
Think about where the best place may be to have the conversation - make sure it's somewhere you won't be disturbed. Have this conversation away from the child's bedroom or safe place.
Be close to your child and consider having your child's attachment objects (blankets/teddies) nearby.
Speak slowly, using words that are appropriate for your child's age and understanding. Be honest.
Use real words, 'dead' or 'died'. Euphemisms such as 'passed away', 'gone to sleep' or 'lost' can be confusing for children. It is often culturally appropriate in New Zealand to use the term 'passed away'. If you intend to use this term or whatever word is comfortable in your whānau, explain clearly to your child that this means the person has died.
Tell your child that you have something sad to say "I have some sad news to tell you…".
Say the name of the person who has died. Give your child time to take in this news. You may have to repeat it.
If your child is younger, explain that the person who has died cannot come back. "Nana was so sick her body stopped working and she couldn't breathe anymore. Nana has died".
"The doctors tried really hard to help Nana, but she was too sick for the medicines to help".
You may need to explain what dead means and this may depend on your individual circumstances and beliefs.
"When somebody dies their body stops working, they can't breathe, think, move or feel anymore".
Be aware that distress makes it harder to take in information, and give reassurance.
"Mostly, people get better, and doctors and nurses do everything they can to help".
Try to balance being honest without giving too much information. You can add more details later.
Consider the understanding of your child.
If faced with a question that you are not sure how to answer, ask your child what they think. This will give you an idea of what they already know.
If you need more time to think about your response, let your child know that you will think about their question and get back to them. Coming back to your child at a later time lets your child know that their questions are important and that you are working to get the correct answers. This will help your child to continue to trust you and the relationship they have with you.
It is important to reassure your child that the death wasn't their fault.
Children often want to know why someone has died and can worry that they are somehow to blame (something they said, thought or did).
It is important to reassure your child that the death wasn't their fault.
Children may worry that someone else in the family may die or that they may die. They may have questions around who will look after them. It is important to reassure the child about the wellness of other family members and that your child will continue to be cared for.
Be clear about whether the death was due to illness or not and reassure, for example, that you can't catch cancer, that people are taking practical steps to manage the spread of coronavirus (handwashing, distancing) etc.
Ask if your child has any other questions and let them know that you can continue to have conversations and answer any questions they may have.
Children can respond in many ways to difficult news such as:
Or, there may be no immediate reaction. This may indicate that your child is simply overwhelmed rather than not hearing what you are saying.
Younger children may focus on the practical aspects of their care and will need reassurance around this, such as who will take them to school or swimming lessons.
Talk about feelings and how upsetting the news is for everybody. Explain that you are sad and that you cry sometimes because of feeling sad.
Acknowledge the feelings you see in your child.
Sharing how you feel is helpful, but children often find it upsetting to see the adults around them distressed. It's OK to cry around your child but it can be helpful to protect them from the rawness of big emotion or seeing you totally overwhelmed.
This is the first conversation - there will be more.
Reassure your child that they don't have to manage this alone. Talk about who can support them - both inside and outside the whanau. Sometimes, talking to somebody outside of the family can be useful. Children can share how they feel without being worried about upsetting the adults around them.
Think together about how to talk to the people around your child, to let them know what has happened. Your child may want help to talk to friends.
Talk to your child about letting their kindy or school teacher know, and whoever else may share the care of your child.
You may need to return to this conversation many times, particularly with younger children as they learn to make sense of what has happened.
Look after yourself, seek support within your whanau and friendship groups. These conversations are emotionally challenging and possibly the most difficult you will ever have.
Get outside support if you need to. Connect with people or organisations that can support your family.
The content on this page has been developed and approved by the New Zealand Paediatric Palliative Care Clinical Network, Paediatric Society of New Zealand. The content has been adapted from "How to tell children that someone has died" by Dr Louise Dalton et al.
Skylight provides a national support service for New Zealand children and young people who are experiencing change, loss and grief - whatever its cause. Skylight also supports those caring for these children and young people - their families, whānau, friends, professionals and community volunteers. Call free on 0800 299 100 or 64 4 939 6767.
Kenzie's Gift is a New Zealand organisation which aims to improve the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children, young people and their families affected by serious illness or bereavement.
The Child Bereavement UK website provides information for when a child or family grieves.
Offers helpful information for parents and carers and for young people themselves after a family member has died.