Tell child loved one is dying

Should I tell my children that their loved one is dying?

When a parent, grandparent brother or sister is seriously ill, whether they have cancer or another illness, there may come a point when you know that they may not survive. This will be a dreadful realisation for you to come to terms with, and you will be faced with the decision about when and how to tell your child a loved one is dying.

Why you should tell a child or young person a loved one is going to die

Telling a child or young person that their loved one is going to die will be one of the hardest conversations you will ever have to have. However, from our experience with many bereaved children, we believe that it is better for your child to know the truth, and that it is best for them to hear it from their parent or primary carer.

Children and young people have an ability to deal with the truth that adults often underestimate. They may well have already realised that things have changed for the worse, from overheard conversations or from changes in family members’ emotions and behaviour. Partial or inaccurate information can be more worrying than the truth.

How to tell a child someone is dying

How you explain the situation to your child will depend on their age and level of understanding. When you are telling them that their parent/grandparent/sibling is going to die, use the type of language that you would normally use.

The key points to convey are that:

  • The doctors have tried every way possible to treat the illness but it was just too severe
  • It is nobody’s fault – especially make sure to say it is not the child’s fault
  • The person does not have long to live and may die in the next few hours or days

Think of your first conversation as the first piece in a jigsaw. In further conversations you can add in more pieces of information to build up the jigsaw. It is important to keep the information flowing and to keep checking what the child has understood. Answer questions as honestly as you can – if you don’t know the answer say you will find out and come back to them.

These days will inevitably be heartbreakingly sad for all concerned, but with love and support, the children will be able to look back on this time as having been full of love and closeness.

How to help a child say goodbye to a loved one

Telling your child that their loved one is likely to die allows them to think about the person and perhaps to communicate with them in some way to say goodbye.

When a person has coronavirus it is unlikely that your child will be able to see them in person, because of the need for the person to be in isolation, perhaps in a special hospital ward. Instead, maybe they could make or sign a card, send a picture or a recorded message, or even video call if possible.

This will be helpful to the child in future, because they will be able to think back on how they did something for their loved one before they died.

Where to get support

Winston’s Wish is a charity that helps children, teenagers and young adults (up to the age of 25) find their feet when their worlds are turned upside down by grief. Through information about grief, on-demand helpline, email and live chat services, bereavement support and counselling, we support young people to understand their feelings, process their grief and find ways to move forward with hope for a brighter future.

We also help the adults who are caring for young grieving people, including parents, school staff and healthcare professionals, through information, resources, training and on-demand services.

If you need guidance and support, you can call us on 08088 020 021 (open 8am-8pm, weekdays), email or use our live chat (open 8am-8pm, weekdays). You can find out more about the support we offer on our Get Support page.

Our Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger is available 24/7 for urgent support in a crisis. Text WW to 85258.

Other articles you might find helpful
Preparing a child for the death of a parent by cancer
Preparing a child for the death of a parent by cancer

It will be very difficult for children and young people when a parent is seriously ill and may die. Here are some of the ways in which you can prepare a child.

Publications and resources from Winston's Wish
Publications and resources

Our specialist publications for adults supporting bereaved children.