If there is another adult available, share the news and plan to be together when telling your tamariki / children. Review what has happened and think about how you can share the news in simple language that your taitamaiti / child will understand. You could write down the facts to support the conversation you’ll have.
Even very young tamariki / children (under 2 years) will need an explanation of what they’re seeing around them, to help them understand what has happened.
Try to keep your focus in the moment, thinking about how you would want your tamariki / children to hear the news about their loved one's death.
What your taitamaiti / child needs to know
Think about your child's age and their understanding. What do they already know? News is best heard from a whānau member, but this is a very difficult conversation to have. If you’re unable to say the words, consider being close by while someone else familiar to your whānau explains what’s happened.
Here’s a general overview of what tamariki / children might understand about death at certain ages.
- Babies and toddlers don’t understand death or have the language to be able to express their feelings. They experience loss, separation and distress through their environment and the people around them.
- Pre-schoolers also have limited language and reasoning and may find it difficult to understand that death is permanent. They can feel insecure and frightened when things at home change. Pre-schoolers often have 'magical' thinking - thinking that their whānau member can come alive again.
- Tamariki / children between the ages of 5-12 years are still developing a mature understanding of death and may have some confusing thoughts about it. Younger tamariki / children in this age group may still have some 'magical' thinking and may also be concerned about the person who has died being lonely, cold or hungry. This age group is often very interested in what happens to the body after death and can ask direct questions that can be difficult for adults to hear. A growing understanding that death happens to everyone can mean that this age group can be worried that someone else may die or that they themselves may die.
- Tamariki / children between the ages of 10-12-years generally understand the concepts of death and that it’s final, irreversible and happens to everyone. This is a time of social, hormonal and physical change. Mātātahi / young people may be more aware of how other people and adults are reacting to the death.
- Teenagers know that death is a part of life.
Where to have the conversation
Think about where the best place may be to have the conversation - make sure it's somewhere you won't be disturbed. Have this conversation away from your child's bedroom or safe place.
Be close to your taitamaiti / child and consider having their attachment objects (like blankets or teddies) nearby.
Explaining death to tamariki / children
To explain death, speak slowly and honestly, using words that are appropriate for your child's age and understanding. Using real words like 'dead' or 'died' is helpful. Phrases like 'passed away', 'gone to sleep' or 'lost' can be confusing for tamariki / children. If you’d like to use one of these terms, explain clearly to your taitamaiti / child that this means the person has died.
Here are some other tips:
- Prepare your taitamaiti / child for sad news by saying something like: "I have some sad news to tell you…".
- Say the name of the person who has died. Give your taitamaiti / child time to take in this news. You may have to repeat it.
- Explain that the person who has died can’t come back: "Nana was so sick her body stopped working and she couldn't breathe anymore. Nana has died. The doctors tried really hard to help Nana, but she was too sick for the medicines to help."
- You may need to explain what dead means and this may depend on your individual circumstances and beliefs: "When somebody dies their body stops working, they can't breathe, think, move or feel anymore."
- Upset and distress makes it harder to take in information so give plenty of reassurance: "Mostly, people get better, and doctors and nurses do everything they can to help."
- Don't give too much information at first, you can add more details later.
Dealing with questions
It’s ok to let your taitamaiti / child know you’ll get back to them with an answer – just make sure that you do. If they ask a question you’re not sure how to answer, ask your taitamaiti / child what they think. This will give you an idea of what they already know.
If you need more time to think about your response, let your taitamaiti / child know that you’ll think about their question and get back to them. Coming back to your taitamaiti / child at a later time lets your taitamaiti / child know that their questions are important and that you’re working to get the correct answers. This will help your taitamaiti / child continue to trust you and the relationship they have with you.
It's important to reassure your taitamaiti / child that the death wasn't their fault. Tamariki / children often want to know why someone has died and can worry that they’re somehow to blame (something they said, thought or did).
Tamariki / children may worry that someone else in the whānau may die or that they may die. They may have questions around who will look after them. It’s important to reassure your taitamaiti / child about the wellness of other whānau members and that your taitamaiti / child will always be cared for.
Be clear about whether the death was due to illness or not and reassure them. For example, you could tell them that you can't catch mate pukupuku / cancer or that people are taking practical steps to manage the spread of COVID-19 like handwashing and masks.
Ask if your taitamaiti / child has any other questions and let them know that you can continue to have conversations and answer any questions they may have, whenever they need or want to.
How tamariki / children might respond
Tamariki / children can respond in many ways to difficult news, like:
- Not believing what you’re telling them.
- Going quiet.
- Being distracted.
- Asking a practical question like “what’s for dinner?”
Or they might not immediately react. This is probably your taitamaiti / child feeling overwhelmed rather than not hearing what you’re saying.
Younger tamariki / children may focus on the practical aspects of their care and will need reassurance around this, like who will take them to kura / school or swimming lessons.
Talk about feelings and how upsetting the news is for everybody. Explain that you’re sad and that you cry sometimes because of feeling sad. Sharing how you feel is helpful, but tamariki / children often find it upsetting to see the adults around them distressed. It's ok to cry around your taitamaiti / child but it can be helpful to protect them from the rawness of big emotion or seeing you totally overwhelmed.
Finishing the first conversation
Remember this is only the first conversation - there will be more.
Reassure your taitamaiti / child that they don't need to manage this alone. Talk about who can support them - both inside and outside the whānau. Sometimes, talking to somebody outside of the whānau can be useful. Tamariki / children can share how they feel without being worried about upsetting the adults around them.
Think together about how to let the people around your taitamaiti / child know what’s happened. Your taitamaiti / child may want help to talk to friends.
Talk to your taitamaiti / child about letting their teacher know, and whoever else may share the care of your taitamaiti / child.
You may need to return to this conversation many times, especially with younger tamariki / children as they learn to make sense of what has happened.
The content on this page has been developed and approved by the New Zealand Paediatric Palliative Care Clinical Network, Paediatric Society of New Zealand. The content has been adapted from "How to tell children that someone has died" by Dr Louise Dalton et al.