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Palliative Care Center

Life-Threatening Illness: What to Tell Family, Friends

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Talking to Children

What if you have to share the news of a life-threatening illness with your child or grandchild? Many people fear talking about death or the possibility of death with children and try to hide the information. But that can be unhealthy.

Even a child of three or four is old enough to know in simple terms what's happening. And talking about it creates the opportunity to have some closure -- both for the child and the person who is dying. When talking to a young child, it's important to not give too much information. And what you do say should always be age appropriate. 

For example, you might tell your young child, "Grandma's very sick. She's trying to get better and her doctors have been helping her, but it looks like she is probably going to die."

Once a child has been told this news, expect him or her to have questions -- but not necessarily right away. Sometimes, a child may say nothing and turn right back to playing, only to ask about Grandma dying while driving home from school the next day or the next week. Here are some tips to help you with these conversations:

  • Let children know it's OK to ask questions whenever they have them. You might say, "You're probably going to wonder about what's happening to Grandma, and it's OK to keep asking me when you have questions."
  • If your child says that she feels sad or scared, let her know that it's OK. Tell children that you have feelings like that too. If they catch you crying, there's nothing wrong with telling them that you're feeling sad or scared.
  • Let the child's primary caregivers at school, day care, or church know what he or she is going through, and make sure children know who they can talk to at school.
  • Give them the opportunity to express their feelings through writing or drawing.
  • Depending on how old the child is, you can explain the treatments the person that is dying is going through.
  • Don't ever compare sleep and death ("Grandma will just go to sleep") -- that can make a child afraid of going to sleep.

This is another area in which your palliative care team can be a very important resource. The team has the expertise to tell a 6- or 7-year-old what is going on.

 

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