explaining accidental death
Explaining that someone has died
- If possible, try and break this news somewhere that is comfortable and feels safe for the child. It can be helpful, particularly for older children for them to have a safe place close by (such as their bedroom) where they can go to after this news if they need some space.
- Avoid using euphemisms such as ‘gone to sleep’ ‘in the sky’. Although these can feel more appropriate for children, they can often cause more confusion. It is helpful to use words like died and dead so that children understand what has happened.
- Give very simple information which explains that the person has died. You don’t need to go into any details just yet. You could use words like this:“I have some very sad news to tell you, Daddy died last night”
- If you think they may have heard other information, it can help to ask them what they think has happened so that you can pick up any facts that need correcting.
Giving simple details
This level of information helps a child to place what has happened within a context so that they have somewhere to form the rest of the information as they are given it. Give honest simple details such as where they died. For example:
“Tyler died in his car” “Daddy died outside the train station”
explaining how they died
Giving honest details is helpful for children to process what has happened, and to make sure they do not base what happened on over-heard conversations or on their own imagination as this can often be worse. However, it is important to think about how this information is worded so that is appropriate for the child’s age.
Particularly with younger children, try to use words that are less emotive, such as ‘hurt’ and ‘died’.
Try and combine simple truths with words of reassurance.
“Mummy was driving her car and somebody in another car couldn’t stop in time and their car hit Mummy’s car. The doctors tried to make Mummy better, but her body was too hurt and she died. The doctors said that Mummy wouldn’t have been in any pain”
“Sam was walking in the countryside. He slipped and fell down a big hill. The fall meant that his body was very hurt, and he died. It’s very sad but we will always love him and remember him.”
It’s important to check that the child understands what they have been told by asking them once you have explained what has happened. Younger children do not have the same understanding of what death means as older children, so you may need to go through this with them in language that is appropriate for their age. We would recommend books such as ‘I miss you, a first look at death’ by Pat Thomas and ‘Lifetimes’ by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen to aid these conversations.
Remember that children will understand and react to what has happened in accordance with their age and stage of development. For example, a younger child may repeat the same question again and again, even if you have given them the same answer consistently. This is how they process the information, and although it can be difficult to keep repeating the answer, it is an important task in them developing their understanding. For more information on age related grief reactions click here
At each of these stages encourage questions. These questions will help you know what they feel ready to hear. Try to answer their questions honestly, but again only with the details they need and using words that are appropriate to their age.
They may ask questions which you either don’t have the answer to, or you are not ready to answer. It is ok to say that you don’t know, or that you want to answer their question but not right at that moment. If you don’t want to answer a question at the time, it’s important to say when you will sit and talk with them about it so that it doesn’t get forgotten.