Your Health

Talking with kids about end of life

Photo of a mom talking to her sad daughter.
Photo of Shelly Cory. SHELLY CORY
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, December 1, 2017

A mother of young children is diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. A grandparent dies suddenly from a heart attack. A friend dies by suicide.

We never know when death will barge into our lives uninvited. As adults, many of us have already experienced the death of someone close to us such as a family member or friend. Loss obliges us to confront new and intense emotions and countless changes that can take time to adjust to.

But what about children? How do they experience grief? When should they be told that someone they care about is dying? What’s the best way to have that conversation?

There is a risk that children’s grief can be overshadowed by the emotions and events leading up to and following a death. Parents understandably may be too overwhelmed by their own loss to support their children. Further, they may not recognize when children are grieving because it looks different than how adults usually grieve. Children grieve “in chunks.” They are able to balance great joy and great sorrow – far better than adults. It’s natural for short periods of sadness to be followed by play and happiness.

But research and professional experience suggest that children do grieve in ways that can be profound and enduring if not well supported leading up to a death and afterward.

This point was underscored by Prince Harry, who earlier this year talked about his difficulties with grieving following the death of his mother, Princess Diana. 

Prince Harry, who was only 12 when his mother died in a car accident in 1997, said in an interview with The Telegraph in April that he suppressed his grief for 20 years. During this time, Prince Harry said he often felt angry and “on the verge of punching someone.”

It was only when he was about 28, the prince told The Telegraph, that he started to realize that all that pent up anger was unresolved grief about his mother’s death.  

To help parents and other caregivers support children who are grieving the dying or the death of someone they care about, the Canadian Virtual Hospice has recently launched a new website – KidsGrief.ca and DeuildesEnfants.ca.

The website is an extension of MyGrief.ca, a free resource to help adults with their grief. Funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, MyGrief.ca recently won innovation awards from the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement and Digital Health Canada (formerly the Canadian Health Informatics Association). 

The development of KidsGrief.ca was led by Andrea Warnick, a national children’s grief expert.

According to Warnick, the death of a significant person in a child’s life can have a huge impact. “There is little well-informed guidance available to adults who are supporting children through the dying and death of a family member or friend,” she said. “Adults often struggle with what to share, how to share and when the best time is to have the conversation. Trying to protect children from information about dying or death leaves them feeling confused and afraid.”

This new online resource was developed by grief experts and families who have supported grieving children, with funding from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) and Hope & Cope in Montreal. It includes short video clips by experts and families who share their experiences. The modules:

  • Explain the basics of children’s grief and present “teachable moments” –  common situations such as a dead fly on the window sill, to educate kids about dying and death;
  • Outline conversation starters, common questions children have, and language to use with children and teens; and,
  • Offer strategies to support a grieving child.

Among the topics addressed are talking about medical assistance in dying, suicide, and words that can be used to explain cremation and other topics. They also address four common concerns children have when someone is dying:

  • Can I catch it?
  • Did I cause it?
  • Can I cure it?
  • Who will take care of me? 

No parent wants to talk to their children about death and grieving. But it is important to remember that doing so will teach kids that you will face difficult times together as a family, will prepare them for the death and its aftermath, and begin the healing process. KidsGrief.ca gives parents the knowledge and tools to do that.

Shelly Cory is Executive Director of Winnipeg-based Canadian Virtual Hospice (virtualhopsice .ca and portailpalliatif.ca). This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, December 1, 2017.

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