Grieving children – what to do

It is important to consider who should break the news to children about their family member's death. The parent child relationship needs to be preserved for the child's ongoing care and support. Parents may seek support from the care team to inform siblings, so they can be beside the child(ren) as the persons to comfort them while hearing the news, rather than as the bearer of bad news.

Siblings should be given an opportunity to say their own goodbyes and to be involved as much as possible and as their age allows. Use truthful, plain words when talking to your children. Some vague explanations can leave too much to the imagination and may trigger unnecessary fears.

Here are some suggestions based on the experiences of other families:

  • Try not to have particular expectations of how your children may react or grieve, but rather offer encouragement and support to help them respond in their own way.
  • Give your children a chance to say goodbye. Being able to spend quiet undisturbed time with their brother or sister after death is an opportunity that is very special. They may wish to write or draw a goodbye note, or give their sibling a favourite toy 'to keep'.
  • It will help sometime in the following few days to talk with your children about what will happen and what to expect at the funeral service. Offering the choice to be involved and included is important.
  • Be prepared for questions your child may ask such as: 'What will happen to the body?', 'Why is he put into the ground?', 'Can she feel anything?', 'What if he's not dead?', 'What is cremation?' and 'What will his ashes look like?' These questions need honest, simple, accurate, and sometimes repeated answers given in a caring and nurturing atmosphere.
  • As you will be dealing with your own grief at this time, it may be helpful to ask a trusted relative or friend whom the children know to spend special time with them too.9

If you are concerned for a child seek advice from a health professional, such as your General Practitioner (GP). See the 'Resources' page for further details.

For more information about children and their needs:

9 Adapted from: Journeys: Palliative care for children and teenagers, version 2, Eds. Fleming,
   S. Coombs, S. and Phillips, M., Palliative Care Australia, 2010.

Next: Family and friends – parents