Key Takeaways

    • Children provided opportunities to access information and express their feelings and fears often adapt to the situation better. 
    • Talk to the children of a dying family member and ask whether they have thought about how they would like to say goodbye.
    • Be aware that children are still seen and not heard and are very often forgotten mourners.
What do we tell the children about death?

This is a dilemma for many families who may be facing the death of a close loved one or for whom a loved one has died. Should they involve the children, and if so, to what extent? What information should be given and how?

I recently visited a family where Mum’s breast cancer had become more aggressive, and her prognosis was thought to be weeks, at best a couple of months. Thus far, she and her husband had avoided talking to their children about the possible outcome. The children (aged 8 and 6) had lived alongside their mother’s illness for several years. They’d learned to adapt to Mummy’s sick days, loss of hair, and inability to do what other mummies seemed to do. “Should we involve the children now?” Dad asked, “And if we do, what do we say?” 

The oncologist had advised that they tell the children of their mother’s impending death, but the thought of telling the children that their mother was most definitely going to die naturally filled them both with dread. In this family, the children are involved; they have been very much a part of the journey with Mum and have probably got a good idea of what’s going on. The danger of not talking to the children is that children are very good at accessing information and will fill in the gaps with their own ideas, the added and often misguided information from their friends, and of course where accessible, the internet! Although I would not condone telling a child that their parent is going to die, I do think we should provide opportunities for children to ask their questions and to be as honest in our response as we are able. In this family’s situation, explaining that Mummy is probably not going to be able to have any more treatment and that she probably will not get better is enough, thereafter allowing the days to unfold and events to become clearer as the children observe them. Telling a child Mummy is going to die provokes the question “When?” to which there cannot be a definite answer. However, should the child ask, “Is my mummy going to die?” one cannot and should not lie. The answer would be “Yes, but we don’t know when.” The follow-on from such disclosure would then give the child a chance to talk to their mother, express concerns, and gain reassurance, allowing the opportunity to spend time together and share their grief. Children that have been included with opportunities to access information and express their feelings and fears often adapt to the situation and seem to be able to manage far better than those that are excluded and may have picked up snippets of incorrect information or fantasy. Exclusion also denies them precious opportunities to share with their dying loved ones.

Funerals – should children attend?

This is a very personal choice to be made by the family. When a child is old enough to communicate and has a relationship with the deceased, shouldn’t they be given an opportunity to express themselves and to say their personal goodbye?

It is painful to observe our children in grief. As parents, we want to protect them from things that cause distress. We may question the benefits of children observing others in distress, but we must accept that our children have rights and that with our loving guidance and clear and honest explanations, attendance at a funeral of a loved one presents an opportunity for them to be acknowledged and say goodbye.

Over time, I have become aware that children are still seen and not heard and are very often forgotten mourners. Many tell me how sad they felt when they were excluded from their loved one’s funeral, often being told, “It’s too sad,” or “You won’t like seeing everyone upset.” The reality is that we can’t bear your distress, we don’t want you to be sad, death is something we can’t fix or protect you from, and so, for as long as we are able, we will avoid it and hope that as children you won’t notice it. But children do notice. They are like sponges, absorbing everything, and even when we believe them to be absorbed in an activity, they are able to listen in on our conversations. So while I believe it is the right of individual families to decide, I also want to advise that before making the decision, why not ask the child? Find out what they know, clear a way for honest discussion, and give the child the opportunity to share their thoughts with you.

Children and funerals
  1. Ask the child/children what they know about funerals – you may be surprised!
  2. Talk to them about the deceased and ask whether they have thought about how they would like to remember/say goodbye.
  3. They may like to write a letter or draw a picture.
  4. Older children might like to write something to be read at the funeral.
Participating in the funeral service

If the child wishes to participate by offering their own contribution, guidance, support, and reassurance will be needed, alongside the opportunity to change their mind should they wish to. It’s useful to have someone to stand with them if they wish to speak who is able to assist them if they find it too difficult at the time. Just as it’s important to give the opportunity for the child to speak, it is important to give permission not to participate or attend if they don’t want to.

Other ways to involve children might be the choice of music, poetry, or service sheet. Where the death is of a close loved one, i.e., parent or sibling, they may wish to help choose the casket, clothes for the deceased, and place of burial or disposal of remains.

Thank you to our contributors

Alex James

Don’t hide your grief. Wear it, share it. AJ

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