by CanTeen07/12/2018

How to talk with my children about death and dying when one of them has cancer

Having a conversation with your child about death probably wasn’t top of your to do list this week. But when your child has cancer it’s important that they know it’s okay to ask about death and dying and that you’ll be honest with them. 

While this information is focused on talking about death and dying with your child who has cancer, it is also helpful if you’re talking to your other child/ren (whose sister or brother has cancer).  

Talking about death and dying generally 

Like every other cancer conversation you have with your child, the most important thing is to be open and honest. Your child needs to know that it’s okay to talk about death and dying and ask you anything.  

The way children understand death generally depends on their age and level of understanding. It’s helpful to have an idea of how your child might react before you talk to them. Cancer Council’s booklet “Talking to kids about cancer” has a guide to how children perceive death at different ages that might help you. 

Use straightforward language. This includes saying the words ‘dying‘ or ‘died‘ when you tell young children about death – not talking about someone ‘going away’ or ‘going to sleep forever’ which can confuse and upset them more. 

Younger children with limited understanding about cancer may think it’s a death sentence, so it’s good to reassure them that most young people survive cancer.  

Talking about your child’s death 

“Am I going to die?” or “Is my sister/brother going to die?”, is probably the hardest question from your child to answer.  

If your child’s cancer is advanced or has a poor prognosis, it’s important to be honest and straightforward with them (and their siblings). That’s not easy, and you will need a lot of support from family and close friends. Professionals such as social workers, palliative care nurses, doctors, counsellors and psychologists can also help you. It can be helpful to rehearse the words you plan to use with another adult, or seek advice from other parents who have had to have this conversation with their kids. Search or post a question in our online parent community.  

There’s more advice about talking to a child/young person with cancer (and their siblings) in End of life discussion. 

More advice/support 

> Cancer Council’s booklet Talking to Kids About Cancerincludes advice on talking to children/young people of different ages about death and dying.  

> Talk to a CanTeen counsellor, who can give you advice on how to talk about death and dying with young people. 

> Join our online parent community to find out how other parents handled this conversation. 

Useful sites/resources 

> CanTeen’s booklet When your brother or sister’s cancer can’t be cured