Children, like adults, will experience shock and disbelief and may not take in everything at once. They will assimilate as little or as much as they can bear at any one time. They are likely to need repeated explanations with pauses to enable them to digest the information and they may want to have time alone. They need to be told what is likely to happen next, who is available to help them. Clear information needs to be given about the opportunity of returning at a later date to ask questions from the professional staff they have met.
Children’s reactions can vary from deep despair to denial or active protest. Whatever their reaction, it is important that they are allowed to express their feelings without being stopped or urged to “be brave” or to “be the big boy now who can look after the family”.
When a parent or sibling has died
Most children who have been included around a death are not afraid and have a better understanding of what has happened. What they don’t know or aren’t told about, children often make up and their fantasies can be worse than the reality. Children need to be reassured that the death is nothing to do with their thoughts or actions, that they are loved, and that life will not always be so sad.
Seeing the person who has died
When deciding whether children should see the person who has died, parents may be concerned that frightening memories will be powerful and children will be very upset – this is unlikely to be the case, especially if the children have been prepared for what to expect.
Factual explanations of death are helpful, such as, “When people die it means their body doesn’t work anymore and although they will look like they are asleep, they are not, because when you are just asleep your body works very well.” It is useful to explain that the person may feel cold to touch and their skin colour may be different.
Children bereaved suddenly
When you are involved in the care of a person who is dying or who has died suddenly, it is important to consider whether that patient has children or whether siblings are involved.
It can also pose particular challenges for professionals when a child accompanies family members to an Accident & Emergency or Intensive Care Unit as a result of the death or imminent death of someone who is important to the child.
For further information, the following sheets may be of interest:
- Considering children’s needs when someone dies suddenly
- Suicide – information for staff
- The care of siblings following the death of their brother or sister
- When someone special dies – under 7 leaflet
- When someone special dies – 7 to 11 leaflet
- When someone special dies – young person leaflet
Further information in relation to bereaved children and young people:
- Explaining to young children that someone has died
- Children’s understanding of death at different ages
- Explaining funerals, burial and cremation to children
- How children and young people grieve
- What helps grieving children and young people
- Supporting children after a frightening event
- Explaining miscarriage and stillbirth to young children
- When a newborn dies-explaining to young children