10 questions children ask about death and dying
It’s so important to talk to children when someone close to them has died. “When the child isn’t brought on board, and the illness or death of their special person isn’t spoken about, it could have negative consequences.” says Ann Scanlon, Children and Young Persons Counsellor.
To help you explain situations around death and dying to children, we’ve collected ten common questions that children may ask when they’re grieving, and answers you can base yours around.
Remember that children hear a lot more of what goes on around them than you might realise. “The child might be left to piece together bits of information they pick up from overheard conversations.” says Ann.
“Similarly, if the child sees that adults are keeping things from them for their own protection, the child might in turn feel they need to do the same, and keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves in order to protect the adults – creating a damaging cycle of silence.”
What is death?
This is a question we’ve all asked. You could explain that death happens when someone’s body stops working and that they’ll stop breathing, eating and drinking. You might find it useful to add that when you die you don’t need your body anymore, which is why you don’t need to eat or breathe. You can also outline that their body goes cold and stays very still.
Is death forever?
It’s important to answer this question firmly and honestly that, yes, when someone dies nothing can bring them back to life.
Where do you go when you die?
You may want to adjust this answer depending on your or your family’s beliefs. Some people believe that a person’s soul or spirit goes to heaven or somewhere similar like jannah or paradise. In heaven their body is free from pain and they are no longer ill. Other people believe that when you’re dead there is nothing more.
Why do people die?
You might find this is phrased more around the specific scenario your child is in, but it’s important to be factual. You could explain that people’s bodies can be damaged by a bad accident or they can get a very serious illness or disease that doctors couldn’t make better.
Will I die?
Although it may be tempting to protect a child, it's important to be truthful. You might explain that everybody dies, usually when they’re old. You could stress that people don’t die just because someone you know has died.
Could I die of (whatever the person died of, like cancer or a heart attack)?
Your answer may vary depending on exactly what condition you’re asked about. Tell your child that it’s not possible to catch cancer or a heart attack. If what has been asked relates to diseases that are genetic, be honest – that this means that they can be passed down from parents to children, if that is the case with that particular illness, but that doctors will monitor it closely.
(If a parent died) – Will my Mum/Dad die too?
When a parent dies, children often fear that the other parent or carer will die too – especially if the other person becomes ill. Young children may believe that all illnesses have the same outcome. When you answer this question you’ll need to reassure them that most don’t end in death.
Was it my fault?
Another very common question. Tell them that it’s not their fault that someone has died. You’ll also need to address behaviour and explain that being naughty doesn’t make someone die and that being kind and loving can’t stop someone from dying either – nor do wishes and thoughts. Everyone says and does things that later they wish they hadn’t.
Will my sad feelings go away?
You can tell your child that sad feelings don’t last forever and that if something reminds them of the person who died, they may feel sad again for a while. In time the sadness will fade but this doesn’t mean that they don’t love the special person or that they are forgetting them.
Will I forget my Mum/Dad/other important person who’s died?
It’s very common for children to think they might forget about the person who has died. You should explain that they’ll never forget. It’s also nice to add that as time goes by they’re likely start to feel less upset than they do now.
Ann Scanlon says: “Having a solid reminder can help. Try pillow case decorating: Families including the child can decorate pillow cases by painting one another’s hands and placing them on the pillowcase. Also adding special times they have enjoyed together. This can bring fun and enjoyment into the room. It can provide a solid memory of their special person. One young mother’s explanation was, ‘It made me realise that my children were not coming in to see me because I was dying, but to have fun.’”
Some final advice
“One of the most important phrases I use is ‘whatever you decide or feel is OK’”, says Ann. “It gives the child control but without any pressure. It is really important to give the child permission to decide or have feelings about any element.”
If you want to talk to someone, you can call the Marie Curie Support Line, 0800 090 2309*, open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 5pm Saturday, or use our Marie Curie Community .
*Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones. Your call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.