Finding the words: how do you tell a child that someone’s died?

After the deaths of EastEnders’ Ronnie and Roxy Mitchell, viewers have criticised the way the programme showed the children being told their parents had died.

Rachel Morris, a Children and Young People’s Counsellor at our hospice in Liverpool, explains how she helps families to talk more openly about death and dying. 

Telling a child that someone they love has died is one of the most difficult conversations you can have. And as EastEnders showed last week, it’s tempting to try to shield kids from the reality of the situation.

After the deaths of Ronnie and Roxy Mitchell, Ronnie’s husband Jack, played by Scott Maslen, was seen explaining to Matthew (Ronnie’s son), Amy (Roxy’s daughter) and Ricky (Sam Mitchell’s son) that their mother and aunt have “gone away.” But this runs the risk of confusing children further.

Being clear with children about death and dying

Telling kids that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’’ can make them frightened to go to sleep, or worry when someone leaves the house in case they don’t come back.

Instead, it’s important to use clear, simple language – words like ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ may sound harsh to adults, but to children they may make the most sense.

Rachel Morris is a Children and Young Person’s Counsellor at the Marie Curie Hospice, Liverpool. She works with families before and after someone dies to help children come to terms with what’s happening.

“Some families will want some input around speaking to the children about death and dying,” Rachel explains. “With the pre-bereavement work I do – that’s before someone’s died – it’s talking with the children and preparing them for the death of a loved one.

“Forgotten mourners”

Rachel trained as an adult counsellor before deciding to work with children and young people.

“I’ve met people as adults who had unresolved grief from childhood where they’d been told someone who’d died had just left or gone away,” she says. “There’s then that searching or not knowing. It’s key to address what’s going on at the time.

“I think in grief and bereavement, children are often the forgotten mourners. It’s almost like people think they don’t understand, when actually they do. It could be that a family member’s had that experience of grief and wants to protect the child, and that’s totally understandable. My job is to help them through it together.”

Expressing feelings with and without words

Rachel works with children one on one and with their families to help them understand the death of a loved one and what’s going to happen in the future. She finds that allowing children to be creative can be an effective way of helping them express themselves.

“A lot of the time, children will want to draw and explore how they’re feeling that way. I’m working with one little girl who’s mum died at the hospice. In the week between the death and her mother’s funeral we did some artwork which was massive for her. She got the chance to talk about how she felt.

“I’m now helping her to understand that it’s ok to talk about her feelings and to explore those feelings with her family.

Facing up to death

Rachel believes it’s important to realise that talking to children about the death of someone they love will be painful – and not to shy away from that.

“I’m very open and honest with parents. Having that talk with your child – it will be sad, it will be upsetting, but your child will seek comfort from knowing that you’re upset too. It often feels like a weight’s been lifted for them after having that conversation.”

Find out more about talking to children about the death of someone they love. If you want to talk to someone, you can call the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309*. It’s open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 5pm Saturday.

*Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones. Your call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.