When a brother or sister is not expected to live it is very painful for everyone involved.  Preparing to tell a child that their sibling is not going to live can be extremely daunting. Here are some guidelines to help you.  

Talk about the sibling

If their sibling has been ill, a child is likely to have noticed changes in their brother or sister, not only obvious physical changes, but other changes, perhaps in their mood or energy levels.  Ask them what they have noticed so that you can relate what you tell them to what they already know.

Check your child’s understanding

It’s important to be aware of your child’s understanding of death and dying.  What a child understands and the way they react will be influenced by their age, their life experience, their emotional maturity, and your family’s culture and beliefs.  

What shall I say?

What you say will depend on how much your child already knows about their sibling’s illness and any treatment.  Letting children know what the illness is called and explaining as simply as possible what it means may help to lessen any confusion.   Give accurate information as children tend to imagine things they are not told or don’t understand.

You might say:

As you know, Sophie has a type of cancer that is very difficult to treat.

Be honest

Use age appropriate language and be truthful.  Be led by your child and tell them in bite-size chunks. Give them the opportunity to say what they think and be prepared to answer questions.  

You might say:

The doctors have told us that the treatment has stopped working and that there are no other treatments that will work.

Don’t offer false reassurances

Some children may ask directly if their sibling is going to die. However tempting it may be to offer a false reassurance, it is best to support children in the reality of what is going to happen rather than protecting them from it.

You might say:

Yes, the doctors believe that as the treatment is not working, Aryan will die. We don’t know exactly when this will happen, but they know they can’t make him better.

However be aware that not all children will want the same information and may talk to each other, including the dying child.

Give space to express concerns

Children need an opportunity to express their concerns and talk about how they feel about what is happening in their family.  It’s also important to reassure a child that there is nothing they did to cause their sibling’s illness.

Involve your child

A child’s self-esteem can be helped greatly if they have the chance to get involved and do practical things for their ill sibling, such as fixing their pillows or making a card for them.    

Try to keep things ‘normal’

Familiar routines can be helpful to children, making them feel more secure and providing comfort. If normal routines are disrupted, tell your child about what is happening and give them time to ask questions so you can address any worries. See our resource for more on helping a child build resilience. 

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