Telling a child that someone close to them has a terminal illness and is going to die isn’t easy. You may still be processing the news yourself. It can be especially hard when you know the person won’t get better.
Often people find it difficult to know how to begin the conversation, or worry about which words to use. But it can help them if you do talk about it.
If children are told that someone close to them is ill and going to die, it can help them to understand what’s happening better, and it might make them feel less lonely and worried about the situation.
If children notice that something is wrong, they may start to search for information themselves. This might lead to them getting the wrong information or misinterpreting the situation. For example, they could see something on the internet, or overhear information from someone else. It is better for information to come from someone they know and trust.
Talking openly and honestly about the person’s illness may also help the child to speak about the things they’re worried about. It can provide opportunities to spend time together as a family, and it gives you and the child the chance to share your feelings. It can also help them to be more prepared for when the person dies.
Telling a child that someone is ill might also help them to feel more in control, as it can give them the chance to be more involved in making decisions. For example, whether they’d like to see the person if they go into hospital.
Things that make it difficult to tell them
You may find it difficult to talk to the child about the illness. This might be because you want to protect the child , or you worry they won’t be able to cope or understand.
You might not know the best way to share the news , or worry you may get upset in front of them. Family circumstances might make it harder to find the right time to talk, like if parents live separately, if adults disagree on what to tell the child, or if the child has experienced another loss.
Getting support can help you if you’re finding it difficult to talk about the illness. A doctor, nurse, social worker or counsellor may be able to give you ideas on how to begin the conversation. They may also be able to give you more information about the illness, so you feel better prepared to talk about it.
You might feel like the child won’t be able to cope or understand what is happening. But they may have noticed that something is different at home, and they may feel less worried if they know about the situation.
You could try telling them a little bit about the person’s illness, and encourage them to ask questions if they want to. Remember that you don’t need to know the answer to every question they have. When you tell them, you could make a list of any questions you can’t answer and find out the answer together. We have more information on questions children might ask.
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Telling a child or young person that someone is ill and going to die can be very emotional. It’s important to take some time to think about what you’ll say. You may be able to get support with telling them from a family member, friend, or a professional like a GP, social worker, counsellor or religious leader.
You could speak to a counsellor or get support from your local hospice, including Marie Curie Hospices. Some have counsellors for families, children and young people. These are usually only available if the person who is ill is known to the hospice, but this can vary. Contact your local hospice to find out more. We have a list of Marie Curie Hospices, or you can find your local hospice on the Hospice UK website .
You could also contact the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309.
Conversations about someone's illness are usually best coming from someone who is close to the child and knows them well, like a parent, other relative or close family friend.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling the child on your own, it’s OK to have someone with you for support when you tell them, like a friend or family member.
You might want to have a health or social care professional in the room with you, like a doctor, nurse, social worker or counsellor. While the news is better coming from someone who knows the child, it can be reassuring for you to have someone there to support you. The child can also speak to the professional if they’d like to.
There is no set way to tell a child or young person that someone is dying. Every family and every situation is different.
It’s usually better to tell the child or young person soon after the person is diagnosed, or when the illness becomes more serious. Children may notice changes in the person who is ill or sense that something is different, and speaking openly can give them the chance to ask questions as the illness progresses.
You could try telling the child in a place where they feel comfortable and safe, like at home. Try not to tell them before bedtime, as they may have trouble sleeping, or go to sleep with unanswered questions. It might be best to tell them in a place which isn’t too public, so they feel able to show their emotions if they want to.
You might want to tell them on the weekend or during the school holidays (but try not to delay the conversation if the holidays are quite far away). This means they can have family around if they have any questions or need support.
There may be more than one child or young person you need to tell. If they are different ages, you may want to tell them separately, in different ways. You could also tell them at the same time, but speak to them separately afterwards to make sure they feel supported. We have more information on what children may understand at different ages.
If you do tell the children separately, you may want to have a conversation all together afterwards.
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It can be very difficult to know what to say or how to begin the conversation. Being too optimistic can give children false hope, but it can be hard to tell them about something serious.
You may find it helpful to start by asking the child or young person what they know already, or whether they’ve noticed anything different about the person who is unwell. Some adults find that the child knows more or less than they initially thought.
Ask them how much they want to know – some children might want more detailed information, while others may prefer to just know the basics.
Try to use clear and simple language. Using euphemisms, like saying the person is ‘feeling under the weather’, can be confusing, especially for younger children. If a child isn’t given clear information, they might think the adult could get better.
As you’re speaking to them, it can help to check the child understands what you’ve said. Giving information in small chunks is sometimes easier than telling them everything in one go.
Remember that all the information doesn’t have to come in one conversation – you can have a number of conversations where you build on what you’ve said before.
Here are some ideas for how you could start the conversation:
- If the child knows something already, you could acknowledge this. You could say: “You know that I have been ill for a long time, and the doctors have been trying to make me better.” Their response may help you to understand how much they already know.
- You could ask what they’ve noticed about the person recently. They might say something like: “Grandpa’s too tired to play with me.” They might go on to say more about what they think is happening.
- Guided by what they say, you could say something like: “Mum’s illness has gotten a lot worse and the doctors have tried everything they can. There isn't anything more they can do now to make her better, and that means mum won't live for much longer. This means that mum will die. We don’t know when this will be, but the doctors think it could be soon.”
You may be surprised at how the child or young person reacts. They might seem less affected or upset than you expected. Try not to worry if this happens – children may react differently to how you’d expect when they hear bad news. We have more information on how children or young people may react.
The child might ask questions which you find difficult to answer. It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to all of these – some children just want to know that they are being listened to. Some children might not have any questions at first. We have examples of questions children might ask and how you could answer them.
Having this conversation can be emotionally difficult. You may find it helpful to speak to a counsellor, social worker or GP for further support.
You can also call the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309 or speak to someone via web chat.
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