Other guidance films that may be helpful: When someone is not expected to live

When a parent, main carer, sibling or other special person is not expected to live, the prospect of communicating this to a child is very daunting, especially when you are upset or in shock. For a parent who is seriously ill, the thought that their children will grow up without them may be devastating.  To protect children, and themselves, parents or carers may want to avoid the subject for as long as possible.  This is even more understandable when it is not certain what course the illness will take, and how the child’s life will be affected. 

However, even very young children tend to pick up when something is wrong, though they may not fully understand what is happening.  They will feel more secure if they are kept informed in a way they can understand.  Avoiding the subject may leave them afraid that they have done something wrong, or too worried to ask questions. 

Explaining the illness or situation

For young children, it is helpful to explain the illness or situation in basic terms, for example:
“Daddy’s illness is called cancer. Because of it, his body can’t work very well.  You haven’t done anything to make this happen, and you can’t catch cancer like some other illnesses”.

“Eddie was driving his car and it crashed.  He was badly hurt and is in hospital, but he is so hurt that the doctors can’t make him better.”

How do I tell children someone is going to die?

What you tell children will depend on their age and understanding, and how much they already know.  It is best to start giving them information early on, in bite-size chunks, allowing them time in between to process what they’ve been told and ask you any questions.  Only give them the information they need at the time, and add more later. 

Here is one approach that you could adapt, and this can be done in stages, over the course of different conversations:

  • If the child knows something already, acknowledge this: “You know that Joe has been ill for a long time, and the doctors have been trying to make him better.” 
  • Their response may help you to understand how much they already know.
  • Ask what they’ve noticed about Joe recently. They might say something like “he’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: “Joe’s illness has got a lot worse and the doctors have tried everything they can. There isn't anything more they can do now to make him better, and that means Joe won't live for much longer This means that Joe will die.  We don’t know when this will be but the doctors think it could be very soon.

Young children (under 6 years) are unlikely to understand fully what death means, especially that it is permanent.

Children’s understanding of death at different ages

How will they react?

Reactions may include shock and numbness to sadness, anxiety, anger, and even guilt.  Some children may look blank, or not show any immediate reaction, as they need time to process what they have been told. They may ask questions, and it is OK to say you don’t know the answer to a question, but that you will try to find out.  Reassure your child that whatever they are feeling is OK and that there is nothing they did to cause the situation.

Keeping children involved

Children feel more involved and their self-esteem is boosted by being able to help in caregiving, even in small ways such as adjusting the person’s pillows or making them a card.

When someone is not expected to live - Supporting children     

It is very important to make time to be together and keep communicating, even if talking about the situation or the future is too difficult.  The courage it takes to talk to a child about serious illness or death cannot be underestimated.  Just do what you can when you can, and ask for support when you need it. 


Books to help explain serious illness in the family to children


  My Brother and Me, written by Sarah Courtauld and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb.

Available from Child Bereavement UK  

  When your Mum or Dad has Cancer, by Ann Couldrick.

Available from Child Bereavement UK 

> More books and resources

Find support

We offer face to face and telephone support when someone is not expected to live, and you can call our Helpline on 0800 02 888 40.

> Find support near you

> Child Bereavement UK support services