Talking to tamariki (children) and mātātahi (young people) about terminal illness

Talking to tamariki (children) and mātātahi (young people) about terminal illness name

If you, or someone close to you and your tamariki / taitamaiti (child), have mate pukupuku (cancer), or other serious illness, that has come back, spread or is terminal, you might be wondering how to talk to your tamariki / taitamaiti about it. 

It’s a sad reality for a lot of Kiwi families. That’s why we’ve put together a free guide about talking to tamariki and mātātahi about terminal illness. 

Read on for a brief overview about talking to tamariki about terminal illness, including what they need to know. 


When talking to tamariki about terminal illness… 

  • Remember that tamariki as well as adults can react very strongly to the news of terminal illness. 

  • Let tamariki express their emotions and grieve in their own way. 

  • Give tamariki an honest and age appropriate idea about your or a loved one’s prognosis. 

  • Try to be open about death. Let your tamariki ask questions and express their fears. 

  • Reassure your tamariki about the future. 

  • Spend time with your tamariki so you can create lasting memories together (or let them spend time with the person who has the terminal illness). 

  • Give tamariki realistic hope that you can still enjoy time together or that you (or the person with terminal illness) will still have some good days. 

What do tamariki need to know?  

If you’ve been told your illness is terminal, it’s important to keep talking with your tamariki. Like with your initial diagnosis, it’s likely that tamariki will sense that something’s happening. Not telling them can add to their anxiety and upset. 

Tamariki will usually have similar feelings to adults after hearing about terminal illness, like: 

  • Shock 

  • Denial 

  • Fear 

  • Anxiety 

  • Sadness 

  • Anger 

  • Guilt 

  • Loneliness 

Preparing tamariki or mātātahi (young people) for the death of a loved one is difficult. Here’s an idea of what to cover in your first conversation. 


Be honest and open 

Once your tamariki know the illness is terminal, they need to be given an idea about what this may mean in terms of the outcome. Sometimes, the prognosis is clear, and people will know that they probably only have months to live. Other times, people with terminal illness are surviving for a longer time, even years. 

If death is likely to happen soon, try to be as honest and truthful as you can, without scaring your tamariki. You might think that saying ‘death is always peaceful’ is helpful, but it’s not always true so it’s best avoided. 


Let them know what to expect 

Preparing your tamariki for the days ahead can help them cope. Explain how the illness might affect the person (e.g. they might be sleepy) and what treatment they may have (e.g. they need a lot of medicine). Young tamariki can think in concrete terms, so it helps to talk about death as a change in function. 


Balance hope with reality 

A terminal illness doesn’t mean giving up hope. Some people live for years with a terminal illness, including continuing active treatment and enjoying so many aspects of life, like spending time with their tamariki and whānau. 

As time passes, the things that you’re hoping for might change but you can still be honest and realistic while offering hope. For example, you can tell your tamariki that the focus is now on living comfortably for as long as possible or being around to celebrate a special event. 


Wait for tamariki to ask 

When you’re planning to have conversations about terminal illness, it’s natural for your mind to run ahead and start thinking about everything your tamariki might ask you. But the reality is that they might not even think to ask you those things! 

Instead, aim to give simple and short explanations and brief answers. Rather than answering a question they haven’t asked, wait for the next question and respond to that. 

Offering lots of information and explanations can be overwhelming for tamariki, especially if they aren’t ready to hear them. It’s important to give tamariki time to absorb and process the information. If they ask a question you can’t answer, tell them you’ll find out and let them know – and make sure you do. 


Use words they can understand 

Sometimes phrases we use to describe death can be confusing for tamariki, especially terms like: 

  • Passed away 

  • Passed onto 

  • Lost 

  • Went to sleep 

  • Gone away 

  • Resting 

Instead of these words, try to use straightforward language including the words ‘dying’ and ‘death’. 


Download our free guide 

For more information and help with talking to tamariki about terminal illness, download our free guide.  

This guide isn’t intended to replace professional help and support when needed. If you feel you and your tamariki may need help from a professional, please contact us – we’re here to help. 


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