How to prepare a child for the death of a parent

Tamariki / children can normally sense when something’s going on around them, especially if it’s something really big, like the death of a parent or caregiver.

It’s really important to be as open and honest as possible about what’s going on.

This helps tamariki / children continue to trust their loved ones. It also helps them worry less, manage their emotions and cope better with the changes.

When should tamariki / children be told that a parent is dying?

Tamariki / children, especially young ones, can find it hard to understand that death may happen in the future. But they can understand that serious illness can cause your body to not work well and that one day, your body might stop working.

It’s good to understand that this won’t be a one-off conversation, it’ll be made up of smaller conversations over time. Tamariki / children need to be told the truth bit by bit over time, depending on how sick the parent or caregiver is. This gives them the time to adjust while still dealing with their everyday lives.

It’s helpful if you’ve been honest and open about the serious illness from the start – read our guide to talking to tamariki / children about mate pukupuku / cancer.

How might tamariki / children react?

Tamariki / children of different ages will react differently to the news. Here are some common reactions:

  • Refusing to believe that their parent or caregiver is dying, and demonstrate this by behaving poorly.
  • Acting out their sadness or anger by refusing to go along with established whānau rules.
  • Refusing to listen to what they’re being told.
  • Pretending nothing is wrong.
  • Regressing to behaving like they’re a lot younger – they might start sucking their thumb or wetting the bed, for example.
  • Developing separation anxiety and not wanting to go to daycare or kura / school.

It’s natural for tamariki / children who have a parent or caregiver who is dying to feel:

  • Anxious or depressed.
  • Fear, including about the future, their own health and the health of other whānau members.
  • Anger.
  • Responsibility for the parent or caregiver’s illness.
  • Abandoned, especially if the parent or caregiver is away from home more than usual for treatment.
  • Increased responsibility around the home.

The grieving process can start before death so you may find some useful advice in our Memories are Forever Support Kit. On pages 8 to 11 of this guide to grief for mātua / parents and caregivers, you’ll find information about how tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people of different ages grieve and how you can support them.

What should I say to a taitamaiti / child whose parent or caregiver is dying?

This is a really tough conversation to have. You may like to rehearse what you’re going to say. When you’re ready, give yourself some uninterrupted quiet time with the taitamaiti / child.

You might want to have the other parent or another trusted adult with you. This might be a doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional.

Here are some tips:

  • Be as honest as you can about what’s going on.
  • Let them know that it’s ok to feel whatever they’re feeling – angry, confused, sad or scared – and reassure them that their feelings are normal.
  • Reassure them you’ve planned so they will always be cared for. A key part of preparing a taitamaiti / child for the death of a parent or caregiver is planning who will look after them after the death, and then sharing these arrangements with the taitamaiti / child. This might be the other parent, tīpuna / grandparents or other relatives or close friends. There are agencies that can help find possible caregivers if you don’t have anyone suitable to ask. Share the plan with the tamariki / children in an open and honest way. Tell them what changes to expect, i.e. “Aunty Carol will pick you up from kura / school”.
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings and ask questions any time.
  • Use words they can understand.
  • Reassure them that they will always be loved and taken care of, even when you’re not around.
  • Give older tamariki / children, especially teens, space and time if they need it. Remind them it’s ok to enjoy their usual activities.

How to start the conversation

It’s helpful to get an idea of how your taitamaiti / child thinks things are going. Ask an open-ended question like “How do you think I’m doing now?” Tamariki / children often sense that things are getting more serious just by the way you’re acting, how you look, and how much you’re able to take part in normal whānau life.

Ask them if they’ve noticed any changes, and what they think these changes mean. Rather than assuming that you know what’s going on inside your child’s head, ask.

Use the right words

It’s really important to use the words “die” and “death” rather than words that make death sound nicer, like “pass away” or “go to sleep”. Younger tamariki / children often don’t understand what these nicer-sounding words mean and might not understand what you’re trying to tell them.

You can explain death with phrases like:

  • Death means that we’ll no longer see the person we love except in our hearts and minds.
  • Death means the person will no longer be physically with us in our lives.
  • They’ll no longer be with us as they were before, but we’ll still have memories of them.
  • When a person dies, they don’t feel anymore; their heart doesn’t beat anymore; the person doesn’t breathe.
  • Death is not like a trip or sleeping - you don’t come back from being dead.

Some tamariki / children may not be able to understand that a parent or caregiver is dying, and their first reaction is often disbelief or anger. Reassure them that this is completely normal.

It’s also common for tamariki / children to worry about who is going to take care of them with a parent or caregiver dies. If you have plans already, now’s a good time to share them.

Be prepared to repeat this conversation

Tamariki / children, especially younger ones, probably won’t understand what death is and what it means the first time they hear it. You may have to have this conversation many times for them to fully understand.

If they don’t want to believe what you’ve told them, they might ask the same questions again and again, like this conversation never happened. They might do this hoping that the answer will be different next time and that what they’ve been told isn’t true.

Although repeating this conversation can be really painful for you, it’s a key part of preparing the taitamaiti / child. In time, they will accept their new reality and learn that life can, and will, go on without their parent or caregiver.

How do I keep them informed as their loved one nears death?

With some serious illnesses, including mate pukupuku / cancer, it can be many months or even years before someone nears death. This means tamariki / children will have been around for much of their parent or caregiver’s serious illness journey. If they’ve been kept well informed along the way, they may understand when their parent or caregiver is nearing death.

As the parent or caregiver gets sicker, there’s a natural tendency to shield tamariki / children from the signs, like vomiting or being in pain or unable to eat. It’s impossible to protect tamariki / children from everything (and it may take up too much energy at an already challenging time). Instead, it’s best to keep them as informed as possible. Shielding tamariki / children from these realities may slow down their acceptance of what’s happening.

Younger tamariki / children (under 13s)

It’s important for younger tamariki / children to stay in their home where they feel most secure, if possible. Although you may think having them stay with another relative is a good idea, it can cause other problems. It can make the taitamaiti / child feel excluded from their whānau, like they’re unimportant, and like their whānau assume they’re not able to cope with a scary thing like death.

Whether the parent or caregiver is dying at home or in a hōhipere / hospital, tamariki / children should be encouraged to have as much contact with them as possible (if it’s safe to do so).

Tamariki / children should also be encouraged to keep taking part in whatever activities they normally enjoy. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to keep a vigil at their parent’s or caregiver’s bedside. Young tamariki / children don’t need to be there when a parent or caregiver dies.

Mātātahi / young people (13 and above)

Follow the child’s cues about how much time they want to spend with a dying parent or caregiver. There are some activities they can still enjoy together, like playing a favourite game, helping with homework, reading, or cuddling and watching TV. These memories and feelings of closeness will be important when the parent or caregiver is no longer physically there.

Mātātahi / young people might want to help care for their sick parent or caregiver, or help more around the home. But be careful that they’re not put into roles that aren’t suitable for their age. Mātātahi / young people shouldn’t be put into emotional caregiving roles that adults would normally undertake for them. It’s really important that they still have enough time for friends and hobbies and have parts of their lives separate from the whānau. Check in with them regularly to see if the balance is right for them and that they’re not feeling physically or mentally overwhelmed.

Mātātahi / young people might want to be there when their parent or caregiver dies. If the parent or caregiver is ok with that, this should be supported. It’s normal for everyone to have conflicting feelings about this so it can be helpful to ask the medical team to describe what’s likely to happen.

Are there any practical steps I can take now?

Tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people tend to suffer a double loss when they lose a parent or caregiver. This is because they also lose their surviving parent or caregiver to grief.

Setting up support systems outside of the immediate whānau can be really helpful right now. Wider whānau members, close friends or other trusted adults can all form part of their support network. There’s a list of support organisations on our website that can also help.