How to Explain Death and Illness to Children


There may be times in our life when we don’t know what to say, especially when a loved one is facing the end of their life. So, how can we possibly know what to say to our children about it? Hospice care workers in Burbank CA say that explaining death and illness to children is healthy and necessary. It can help children overcome their fear and learn how to be honest about their feelings. The process of guiding a child through a difficult time can also be somewhat therapeutic for adults because it is a gentle reminder to pause and look within.

Children know more than we think. While we often dismiss their ability to understand complicated situations, they can, in truth, sense when something is wrong. Open communication with children, when it comes to death and illness, allows them to process the situation and grieve in a healthy way later. A simplified understanding of life’s challenges can also mitigate their fears and increase their confidence when it comes to experiencing stressful times in general.

Hospice experts in Burbank CA recommend communicating things early on. That way, the situation is not overwhelming to them. They can have time with their loved ones, create meaningful memories, and say their goodbyes. When you involve children in the process, you allow them to make their own observations and go through their own emotional journey. Some parents attempt to shield their children from this difficult time which, in the long term, creates more frustration, confusion, and sadness. Everyone needs their time to grieve, including children. By saving the announcement for later, it inevitably delays their emotional healing. 

When approaching difficult topics like death with children, it is important to give them a safe space to ask questions and share their concerns. They may not accept the information you’re giving them right away, because they are clouded by intense feelings. So, the best thing to do is let them know that they are safe, loved, and supported. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are approaching the subject:

  • Stick to facts: Children, like adults, are empowered by knowledge and learning. Share enough facts that will answer their questions, without confusing them with too much medical terminology. 
  • Reassure them: While this is a difficult time, you can still boost their spirits and their confidence by telling them that they will continue to be loved and cared for. 
  • Be real: It’s okay to cry when you’re talking to your children about the end of someone’s life. Talk to your children about how you’re feeling and why it’s okay for them to express their emotions too. 
  • Be honest: If your children ask questions that you don’t know the answer to, then tell them that. This may be a good time to show them that it’s okay to be confused and that, together, you can learn and grow. 
  • Know their limit: Some children may need time to themself after a difficult conversation while others will want to keep asking questions. Read your children’s cues and, if they’re old enough, ask them what they need from you. 

A difficult conversation with children may come in different forms, depending on their age and personality. Hospice care workers of Faith and Hope Hospice and Palliative Care in Burbank CA say that younger children are a little easier to approach. You can keep the conversation basic and positive. Talk to them while they are doing a favorite activity like coloring. When talking about death, you can allude to something they’ve seen in a kids’ show, movie, or book. You could also bring up something they’ve heard about or experienced with pets. Animal allusions can help them process the situation in a less devastating way. 

When it comes to older children or teenagers, the conversation may need to be a little more involved. Typically, older children will have more first-hand experience with the loved one who is struggling. They may overhear phone calls between you and family members or observe more distress in the house. If they have younger siblings, they may even be taking on some responsibility to help with chores or make meals. It is important to let them take a break from their routines and share their feelings. If they are not ready to talk, then you can simply share some knowledge with them and reassure them. Recommend some ways for them to get out their feelings, like talking to a friend, journaling, or simply practicing self-care. 

Whatever age your child is, you should make a pact to be truthful with them. Before you explain your loved one’s illness, you should ask them what they know. Once you have an idea of where they stand, you can target any misunderstandings and shed further light on the situation. Some professionals recommend avoiding the word “sick” because it may create an upsetting connotation for them. When they, their friends, or loved ones get sick, they may automatically associate that with death. Instead, you can let them know that a loved one has a specific disease (cancer, Parkinson’s, etc.) that is causing their end of life. Being specific will prevent them from generalizing any kind of illness in the future. 

Ultimately, having these conversations with kids will allow them to adjust to life better. Once you have discussed your loved one’s diagnosis, help them go back to their routine. Tell them that you will keep them up to date on your loved one’s health and that you will continue to support them in whatever way they need. Keep the conversation open and let them know that they can ask questions whenever they have them. 

Death can be a scary thing, but it should not ruin a person’s enjoyment of life. By helping your kids understand death as a part of life, you allow them to live fuller lives.

If you or a loved one is in need of end-of-life care, contact Faith & Hope Hospice & Palliative Care at (877) 971-1860. We are a member of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and are accredited by The Joint Commission to provide home-based hospice and palliative care services within Los Angeles County and surrounding areas.