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Ignorance isn’t always bliss - 5 ways to talk about death with a child
13 March 2013

It’s natural to want to protect our children from what we ourselves are often afraid of. However, professionals agree that it is often better to be honest and open with them on the subject. In fact, studies unanimously show that children often know more than what we think.

While the whole subject definitely depends on the child and family in question, here are some pointers we’ve gathered on how the topic can be introduced gently to our children.

1. Honesty is the best policy.

The unknown is frightening, and a lot of unnecessary anxiety may be caused by what a child imagines from stray words he catches in hushed conversations, or from the unhappiness he observes in his caregivers. Explore what he already knows, move on together, and both adult and child will feel far less alone from there on.

2. Don’t beat around the bush

Euphemisms like ‘gone away’ and ‘going to sleep’ are confusing for children – and we wouldn’t want them to associate a travelling parent or bedtime with death! Experts advise using straight-forward words like ‘die’ or ‘dead’.

3. Keep with the ages

Children understand the concept of death and dying differently at different points of their lives. Young children might still believe that death is reversible (no thanks at all to violent cartoons) and, with ‘magical thinking’, may even feel responsible – it’s crucial to reassure them. An older child may on the other hand prefer to have factual information.

4. Strike when the iron’s hot

It’s best to leverage on a child’s curiosity, especially when it’s directed elsewhere that’s more impersonal - it could be a dead insect he may see, a dying plant, or something on TV. Conversely, there may be times when the child is fidgety, or refuses to make eye contact – classic signs of discomfort, and indicators that the topic might be better off dropped for the moment.

5. Love is all you need

It’s important to ensure the child knows that he or she will continue to be loved and cared for. It helps to validate their emotions with language and sympathy, and for the child to be able to communicate his or her feelings through play or art therapy.

A recommended picture book for younger kids is Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs

Palliative and hospice care extends to the entire family, not just the patient. Find out more about our full range of services here. Feel free to contact us at communications@hcahospicecare.org.sg should you have any queries.

Sources: Journal of Clinical Oncology, ehospice, cancer.net, webmd.com