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Discussing Death with Children

Most children of all ages need honest and accurate information regarding their illness, treatment plan, treatment options, and prognosis. Children communicate their fears and concerns in many ways: crying, acting out, through playing and drawing, asking repeated simple questions, ignoring others, seeking information from others, and writing letters. Let your child or teen know that these feelings of sadness, confusion, anger, and fear are all acceptable.

It is important to understand that all children and families are different. Given that different cultures have varying beliefs about what a child should know, there is no one single right way to discuss death. In general, an open communication style atmosphere allows the dying child to express his/her fears and desires. This openness does not happen overnight. It takes time for the child and family to be able to discuss death honestly.

The ultimate goal in discussing death with a dying child is to optimize his/her comfort and alleviate any fears. If the child is not ready to discuss death, the most helpful step parents and caregivers can take is to wait until he/she is ready. Let the child know you are ready to talk to them whenever they are ready to do so. Forcing information will usually result in anger, distrust, and emotional distance from others. Waiting until a child is ready to handle the situation will allow for better communication.

When discussing death, always use language that the child will understand. Consider the following:

It is important to assess the child's and family's beliefs and understanding of death and life after death when communicating with them. Children may have unexpressed fears or concerns that they are not comfortable talking about, or that they do not know how to express, including the following:

For all age groups, allow the child to set the tone for communication. Whatever he/she is most comfortable with will allow for the most effective communication.

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