Children bereaved suddenly

When you are involved in the care of a person who is dying or who has died suddenly, it is important to ask family members whether that patient has children or siblings. You can also ask whether they would like someone they know to bring the children to the hospital. A parent or carer in distress may not have remembered that a child needs to be collected from school.

If a child accompanies family members to an Accident & Emergency or Intensive Care Unit it is important that you as a professional can find out what the child has been told, and that someone can be with the child and reassure them that they will be told what is happening. Children also need to be in an area where they will not see or hear events that they are not prepared for. 

Children’s reactions

Children, like adults, will experience shock and disbelief and will only take in as much as they can bear at any one time. They are likely to need repeated explanations with pauses to enable them to digest the information and they may want to have time alone. They need to be told what is likely to happen next, and who is available to help them. It is helpful to give families the opportunity of returning at a later date to ask questions from the professional staff they have met, and children can be included in this.

Children’s reactions can vary from deep despair to denial or active protest. Whatever their reaction, it is important that they are allowed to express their feelings without being stopped or urged to “be brave” or to “be the big boy now who can look after the family”.

When a parent or sibling has died

Most children who have been kept informed and included around a death, with sensitivity and reassurance, are not afraid and have a better understanding of what has happened. Children will fill gaps in their knowledge by imagining, and their fantasies can be worse than the reality. They need to be reassured that the death is nothing to do with their thoughts or actions, that they are loved, and that life will not always be so sad.

Seeing the person who has died

Parents may be concerned that seeing the person after they have died will give children frightening and upsetting memories.  Depending on the nature of the death and what the body will look like, in many cases seeing the person is likely to be helpful for a child, rather than damaging.  It may be that just part of the body is more appropriate to be on view, such as their hand.

However it is very important that children, and adults, are prepared for what to expect, for example what they will see and hear. It is useful to explain that the person may feel cold to touch and their skin colour may be different. Also explain what any medical equipment will look and sound like.

Factual explanations of death are helpful, such as, “When people die it means their body doesn’t work anymore and although they will look like they are asleep, they are not, because when you are just asleep your body works very well.”

It is the family’s choice, but it helps if children are involved in that decision.  Seeing the person can help children to understand what has happened, and help them to say goodbye.

See also:

> When someone is not expected to live

> Telling a child that someone has died

> Sudden death: including accidents, suicide and homicide

> Looking after yourself