Tips For Medical Professionals

Talking With Children About the Death of a Family Member

Death impacts everyone in a family, including children. Adults in the family may be preoccupied, irritable, anxious and impatient. Family roles and routines often change, and resources may be stretched thin. During such times of family crisis, children need more attention, support and understanding within their family, but the adults in a family are often immersed in their own grief and it becomes very difficult to know how to help the children. 

When children are present during conversations regarding the death, providers can assist the family by engaging the children at an age-appropriate level.  Children may have many questions and concerns about death, but they often have difficulty expressing them and may not ask directly.  The most common themes are these:

  • Did I make this happen? Is this my fault?
  •  Will I get die, too?
  • Who will take care of me? How will this affect me?

Honest information, conveyed in an age-appropriate manner, can help children cope more effectively with the stress and worry caused by the death of a family member.  If a child asks a question, be sure to answer specifically what they are asking without adding extraneous information that may confuse them.

The following guidelines are suggested for medical professionals:

  • Before speaking with a child, have a conversation with caregivers regarding how much information the child already has regarding the death as well as any specific questions or concerns they may have.  The parents/caregivers should set the pace for you to speak with their child.  
  • Ask the child to tell you what they know about how the person died. This will give you a baseline for discussion, and will allow you to correct any misunderstandings.
  • Respect children’s ability to handle honesty. They want to know what happened, and need to have that information in order to make sense out of the changes which have occured. Avoid euphemisms.  Depending on the children's age, they may wish to know more about the person died. Defer to the caregivers' wishes regarding addressing the cause of death.
  • Keep explanations simple, using age-appropriate language; do not overwhelm a child with too much information.
  • Reassure the child that their thoughts, words, or actions did not cause the death. 
  • Reassure the child that death is not contagious. 
  • Show interest and concern about how the child is doing. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time for the child, and ask about their worries and questions.
  • Help the parent identify and access supportive services and information. Ele’s Place has information for parents on how to help their child cope with the death of a family member.