How to explain an accidental death to a child or young person

Deaths caused by an accident can be difficult to understand because they are so sudden and you may not know how or why it has happened. Telling a child or young person that someone has died is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do and can be even more difficult if it was a sudden accidental death. Our team at Winston’s Wish offer their guidance on telling a child or young person that someone important to them has died in an accident.

Give clear and honest information

You may not have all the information as to what happened and how the person died, however, it helps children to be given as much information as possible so they can begin to understand what has happened. It’s important to be clear with your children and to give them the opportunities to ask questions.

For example, you might say:

I’ve got some sad news to tell you. Mummy was on her way to work in her car and there was an accident. Another car hit Mummy’s car and she died.

Knowing how the accident happened is important for children and young people, as it helps them to piece together why their loved one died. They are likely to have lots of thoughts in their head, and so being given factual information is important. Although some parents may feel they don’t want to overwhelm their child with too much detail, the child may be making up the missing information in their heads – which could be more distressing than the truth – or feel confused or scared because they don’t have all the details.

Tell them new information as you get it

If you don’t know how the accident happened, be honest and explain this to your child. For example, you could say:

We don’t know yet how the accident happened. Sometimes, accidents happen because people drive too fast, or someone wasn’t concentrating. Sometimes, we don’t know why accidents happen.

It can also help the child to know that they will be told any more information in the future, once it is known. For example, you could say:

We don’t know much about the accident at the moment, but if I find out anything more, I will tell you.

It is important to keep children updated with any further information, as this will help make clear what happened to their loved one.

You may also want to ask your children what questions they have about the accident, as they may be worried about something you haven’t thought about.

How might they react?

You may find that at the time, your children don’t seem to respond to the news. You might expect them to be upset or angry after they have been told such sad news, however they may ask for a biscuit or to watch their favourite programme. This is a very common way for children to respond to such huge news.

It may be that they want to ask questions a few days later, or that you find they suddenly mention the accident during conversation.

It is also very natural for children to want to avoid being in similar situations to the accident. They might be afraid of travelling in cars or buses, or avoid water. Acknowledge that their fears are reasonable but that you will ensure they are safe. Where possible, explain what is different in this situation compared to the accident.

Talk about feelings

It may be hard for younger children to understand the news of the death of a someone important, especially a sudden accidental death, and it may seem that, initially, they don’t seem to be upset. Explaining to them that this is sad news can be helpful, as well as allowing the child to see the adults around them being upset.

As the reality sinks in for your child they will start to have more feelings of anger, upset, fear, shock or numbness. Knowing that these feelings are normal, and knowing that others are also feeling the same, can help them to feel less worried about their difficult feelings. If adults have talked to children about the feelings they might have, this will help the child to know there is an adult they can talk to when they are struggling with their grief.

When a child or young person witnessed the accident

Your child may have been present during the accident, or have been involved in the accident themselves. This may add to their feelings of fear and distress. It will be important to reassure them that feeling upset, anxious and frightened after the accident are normal feelings to have. You may find that their behaviour changes due to this, and they require additional reassurance. It may be help to find ways for them to express how they are feelings, such as through drawing, exercise or play.

Viewing the body

In some case where the family member has died in an accident, it can be helpful for your children, and other family members, to see the body. It can help them to understand the death of a loved one. Funeral directors can make this possible in almost all situations – for example, they might reveal the hand of the person who died.

Parents often worry that children will be left with the image of a person’s body and that it will be scary. Preparation is key. Often a child’s imagination about what someone will look like after they have died is worse than the reality.

The decision to view the body of a loved one who has died is a very personal choice for both adults and children. The important thing is that a child or young person is given the choice and that this is an informed choice – they need to understand what viewing the body will mean. There is more information about preparing children to see a body here.

Where to get support after an accidental death

Winston’s Wish has supported many children, young people and families after someone has died in an accident. Our expert teams are on hand to offer advice, guidance and bereavement support on a one-off or ongoing basis, depending on your family’s needs. We also run online Grief Support Groups where bereaved young people can connect with each other.

If you need advice on supporting a child or young person who has been bereaved, you can contact us by:

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