What do you tell a child who is dying?


How do you reassure them without lying?

Is it even possible to prepare a child for death?

I had to prepare for my own imminent death when I had a brain tumour (which came with the lovely added feature of causing ‘sudden instant death.’) But I am an adult. I joined Facebook forums so I could chat to other people coping with the same situation, and several of them were parents, coping with the potentially imminent death of a child. What should they say to help prepare them?

Some of the people on the forums were teenagers—little more than children themselves. They talked about losing all their school friends because they were often in hospital, and making friends with the other teenagers in hospital—who then died. They were lonely, and frightened, and a bit lost. What can you say to someone in that position? As they lose their friends, and their hair, as they watch their body morph into something they see as unattractive because medication adds weight they don’t want, and their teeth go bad, and they are tired—so tired—all the time. What can you say to them?

I have never, thankfully, had to cope with anything as difficult as preparing a child who has a terminal illness. The closest I have been was several years ago when I was teaching infants. One of the mothers suffered from a mental disease and she killed her little son and daughter. Robert, aged 5, should have been in my class, but instead we bought a weathervane in his memory and tried to comfort his friends. As teachers we were confronted by both our own grief, and trying to make sense of it when the children asked us questions. I learnt two things:

1. Do not be tempted to tell a child more than they have asked. If they ask about what happens physically, or for facts about procedures, then answer them honestly and concisely. But when you are half-way through a lengthy explanation about death certificates and your child turns back to their story-book, stop. There is no need to give more information than has been asked for, and children rarely ask about things they cannot cope with knowing.

2. Don’t lie. Children are very good monitors of when an adult is lying, and although they might not say anything, they will detect that you are not being honest, and that breeds insecurity. It is okay for them to know that you are sad. It’s okay for you to not have all the answers. They need to know they are loved, and that they can trust you. Whatever the situation.

What can you say to a child or teenager who is potentially facing imminent death? Should we ignore the possibility and only speak in positive terms, clinging on to the chance that the medics will manage to find a cure, and that one day this will all be a bad memory? Obviously being positive is sensible, and medics can cure all kinds of horrible illnesses. But when you are past that, when you know that they can only make your child comfortable, what then?

Personally, when I was facing a dangerous operation, I found it very odd that only the medics ever mentioned death. The doctors talked about it frequently, telling me with every permission form I signed that the risk of death was high, and the risk of permanent irreversible brain damage was higher. It was simply something I needed to prepare for—yet no one else ever mentioned it. Even church friends and leaders—no one ever talked about dying or how to prepare for it. In the event, God himself prepared me for dying, and then allowed me to live. But it has left me with a burden—people should be helped when they are dying. It’s not something we should shy away from, especially with young people.

Preparing for death is not gloomy. When I knew that I might die tomorrow, I lived today really well. Being ready to die means we live better. In fact, I would even go as far as to suggest that until we are prepared for death, we are perhaps not properly prepared for life. Perhaps we need to understand a little about death in order to properly understand the point of life–and to live it fully and enthusiastically.

For people who don’t believe in God, I cannot help. I would suggest that it might be worth putting your own beliefs on hold, because I cannot see how it would be helpful to tell a child that death is the end of everything about them. Perhaps now is the time to test your unbelief.

If you believe in God, then you believe in someone who is bigger than us, someone who we can trust. I cannot tell you why children die, or what God’s plan is, but I do know that he loves your child even more than you do. Dying is about moving from the physical to the spiritual. It is not a mistake, we were created with a use-by date, when we were born there was already a time of death planned.

So, let your child know this. Help them to understand that God has it all in hand, it was part of the plan, and he will be there when your child needs him. I don’t believe that God prepares us for death until we need to be ready, and I have many times told adults who are dying that if they are frightened about dying, then they are probably not going to die today. When it is time to die, I believe that God will come, and take us in his arms, and there will be no fear. Going home is not scary.

But explaining to a child the difference between physical life and spiritual life is hard. Many are struggling with bodies that don’t work properly, they cannot achieve the things they want to do, they can feel like failures. Anyone with a long-term disease fights to not be defined by the disease. When you have a brain tumour, you are not a brain-tumour-patient, you are you and the tumour is something annoying that’s added on. Children too are not simply patients. They each have their unique personality; they have something to offer.

I wrote a story in an attempt to explain some of these ideas in a form that a young child will understand. It seeks to show that who we are is not the physical body that we are wrapped in. There is more to us than can be seen. There is more to life than can be seen, and there is more to death than we realise.

I will post the story on my blog, a chapter at a time over the next few days. I hope it will be helpful. Please share it with anyone who might find it helpful (at some point I will turn it into a little book on Amazon, but I have a Greek exam to revise for at the moment!)

Thank you for reading.

Take care. Love, Anne x

The first chapter is here: https://anneethompson.com/2021/01/25/chapter-one/ I will post a new chapter every day on my blog, under ‘story’ (written in red!) Please share.

Anne E. Thompson
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