When a parent, or primary carer is not expected to live, the prospect of communicating this to your child can be extremely daunting, especially when you are upset or in shock yourself. The way in which a child reacts to the news that their parent or carer will die, will be influenced by their age, life experience, emotional maturity and your family’s culture and beliefs.

Here are some guidelines to help you: 

Check what your child knows: What you tell your child will depend on how much they already know, for instance, about the progress of their parent’s illness and treatment if they have been ill for some time. Even if your child doesn’t know that their parent is dying, they are likely to have noticed changes for example in their physical appearance or energy levels.

Break the news

It’s helpful to not say too much and overwhelm a child with a lot of information at once.  Be led by the child and if it feels right to do so, tell them in bite-size chunks.

You might say:

Mummy has a rare kind of brain cancer called a glioblastoma.

Be honest

Don’t give your child false reassurances. Even very young children will be aware of and be affected by the sadness and emotions of those around them. It is best to support your child in the reality of what is going to happen rather then to try to protect them from it.  You might say:

Mummy’s doctors have given her lots of different treatments but nothing has worked.  They don’t have any other treatments that will make her better. This means that mummy will die.  We don’t know when this will be but her doctors think it could be very soon.

Be prepared for an emotional response: Reactions may range from shock and numbness to sadness, anxiety, anger and even guilt. Reassure your child that whatever they are feeling is OK. It is also important to reassure a young child that there is nothing they did to cause their parent’s illness.

Involve your child in care

Being involved in practical care for their ill parent can be good for a child’s self-esteem. It’s important to ask them what they think and what they would like to do, wherever possible. If it’s not practical for your child to be involved, they might like to do something creative for their parent, such as making a drawing or a card. 

Don’t expect too much of yourself: The courage that it takes to talk to a child about their parent dying cannot be underestimated. Try not to expect too much of yourself and remember the importance of to taking care of yourself as well as others.

For a listening ear, guidance and support, talk to one of our experienced bereavement support practitioners on 0800 02 888 40.