Chapter 3: The first conversation

Who, when and where

The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, explains the importance of including all children and the person who is ill in the conversation.(3:22)Video transcript

My five year old didn't understand everything that we explained to her older sisters, but I think she benefited from knowing they received the news together.

Creating a safe environment where everyone in the family feels included builds trust and encourages future conversations. 

    The best time to talkUnless the situation is sudden and unexpected, try to have the conversation when the children aren’t tired and there’s no need to rush. Plan to be available for support after the conversation ends. Children need time to take in the information and to work through their thoughts and feelings. They may need to come back to ask questions, or simply be near you for emotional comfort.
    The best place to talkTry to have the conversation in a safe, comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted. This may be at home, a favorite place in nature, or a private room in a hospital or hospice.
    Prepare the spaceIf you’re at a hospital or other public place, consider putting a sign on the door asking not to be interrupted. If it’s possible, get down on the same level as the child. If they’re on the floor, sit on the floor with them. Or sit around a table or on a couch together. This helps to create a sense of safety and connection. If possible, have a stuffed animal for younger children to hold for comfort as they listen and try to process the news.
    Prepare yourselfIt’s okay if your own emotions come to the surface during this conversation. While some children find it difficult to see the adults in their lives cry, it’s perfectly healthy for them to do so. If you’re concerned that the intensity of your emotions may make it difficult to have the conversation, ask another adult who your children are comfortable with to help you talk with them and support them. Some people prepare a few notes to help them cover the key points or to explain things in a certain way. You might also choose to rehearse in advance.
    Who should be there?Parents or guardians and siblings of all ages should be part of the conversation so everyone feels included and involved. The younger children might not understand all the information and that’s okay. Conversations can happen with each child individually after the initial conversation. Some children will want more information than others so these can be tailored to their age, needs and understanding. If the person who is dying is a parent or other primary caregiver, it’s helpful if they’re part of this conversation. They might:
    • Share or confirm information, or
    • Simply be present.
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