How Can I Tell My Kid I’m Dying?

parent-childA patient recently asked his hospice nurse, “How can I tell my kid that I’m dying?”

Before attempting answers, there are several excellent reasons to “question” my responses.

First, I don’t have children. I’ll never tell my own kid that I am dying.

Second, I’m not an expert. There are excellent books, from scholarly research on “children and dying” to kids’ books containing well-chosen words and lovely drawings to help youngsters (and parents) discuss death. In the grief groups I’ve lead, I often mention Patty Dann’s 2007 memoir “The Goldfish Went On Vacation” for insights on telling kids about a dying parent. Known for her best-selling novel “Mermaids,” Dann wrote about her husband’s brain cancer and how she dealt with their young son before and after the death. While I heartily recommend Dann’s book, I’m only aware of a spoonful of resources in the gallons of books, blogs and articles* that are available.

Now you know my advice-giver weaknesses! However, in the realm of conversations involving parents, kids and dying, being open about weaknesses (and strengths) is essential.

For my responses, I’m guided by a favorite quote from President Franklin Roosevelt: be sincere; be brief; and be seated. That was the 32nd President’s humorous views on public speaking.

Be sincere. Strive to be honest with your feelings about death. Don’t tell your kid something you don’t believe. Why tell a child that Mom’s going to heaven when you don’t believe in heaven? While there’s no need to share the complexities of adult fears and doubts (and more), don’t ignore them in your explanations. If you’re afraid, let a child know you have fears while reassuring them of your unwavering support and availability. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Even if your kid abruptly confronts you with questions, take time with the answers. Maybe you’ll need to think about what to say, so ask the child if you can talk later—but do talk later! If you make a promise, keep the promise. Think and plan carefully about any serious talk with your child . . . though it’s likely some of what you “rehearse” will be abandoned when unexpected questions arise.

hand-in-handBe brief. Which is to say, listen carefully to a child’s questions or concerns. In our polarized, 24/7 news world, it irks me when a politician gets a specific question (“What is your stand on global warming?”) and then she or he spews safe sound bites predesigned to please a base of supporters without alienating fence-sitters. If a child asks about heaven or if dying hurts or how they can help or any of a thousand issues that may be troubling them, give simple and straightforward responses. Don’t avoid what has been asked. Don’t answer what hasn’t been asked. And remember what I said above about “I don’t know.” That sincere and brief reply can be followed by, “But let’s try to find an answer for your question together.”

Be seated. Roosevelt probably used these words to reinforce brevity with levity. But here’s my take on it: share at your child’s level. Sit with them and talk with them. Most children have experienced death. Trust me, they know more than you think they do. A favorite dog or distant relative has died. Springtime flowers are gone in winter. A child knows death represents change. Avoid misleading euphemisms**. Don’t tell a child that Daddy’s dying is like going to sleep. If death is “like sleep,” a kid’s bedtime could become dread-time. A parent explaining a goldfish’s death by informing a child the watery pet “took a vacation” inspired the ironic title of Dann’s memoir. Please, don’t confuse your child with clichéd euphemisms or muddled metaphors! Children typically perceive the world in black and white terms; there are rewards and punishments, there are good people or bad people. So make sure a child understands the parent’s death is not their fault. Trust me, they don’t know as much as you do.

To sum up, here are a dozen “childish” suggestions:

  1. Listen to the child’s question and answer the child’s question.
  2. Keep language as simple as possible. (Adults also appreciate this.)
  3. Honestly say, “I don’t know.”
  4. Honestly say, “Let’s figure it out together.”
  5. Crying is okay, even for adults. We all grieve in our own way.
  6. Not crying is okay, even for kids. We all grieve in our own way.
  7. Death is not the child’s fault. Death is not the child’s fault.
  8. Sometimes you may need to repeat what you’ve said. (Works with adults, too.)
  9. Everyone is sad (or happy) in different moments and ways.
  10. If you’re religious, avoid claiming God takes people from us. Why not instead say that God receives them when they die. (Who wants to believe in a God that takes away loved ones?)
  11. If you’re not religious, don’t tell a child something you as an adult don’t think is true.
  12. Time doesn’t automatically heal, but being with and supporting a child is time well spent.

Do you have a suggestion for helping a child understand death? I’d love to hear your ideas, your experiences. After all, for kids and adults, one of the best ways to grieve and to heal is to openly share together.


*What books or other resources have been helpful for you? The more resources, the merrier!

**If you want a nice, nasty list of euphemisms on death, read one of my earlier essays here.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

First image from here; second image from here.

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