Chapter 4: Explaining dying and death

Explaining life-limiting illness

The experts says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist explains deciding how much information to provide.(3:22)Video transcript

I explained to the kids that even though I really wanted to play with them and walk them to school the way I used to. I can't because of the cancer. 
More than a cold 

When adults explain that someone is sick or ill, children might think this is much the same as an everyday cold or flu. For this reason, it’s important to name the illness or condition. 

Name the illness

Use the words cancer or heart attack. This:

  • Helps even the youngest children understand this is different from a cold or flu.
  • Gives children a name for the changes they are seeing in the person.

My dad is much more tired than usual because of the cancer.  

  • Decreases the opportunity for misunderstandings.

Uncle Rob has an illness called cancer. It started in his lung so it’s called lung cancer. Cancer isn’t like getting a cold or the flu. It doesn’t spread from one person to another. Cancer doesn’t work that way. You can still touch mom, hug mom, share food with mom, and you won’t get cancer from her. 

Explain the impact 

Use clear language to explain how the illness is affecting the person. For example:   

Aunt Barb has an illness called ALS. It’s causing her body to not work properly. 

If the illness is affecting the person’s thoughts and behaviours, let your child know this: 

You may have noticed that your grandma has been acting differently. I’ve noticed that she gets angry more easily. This is because the cancer is in her brain, and this changes her mood and behaviour. 

Outline how to behave

Let them know if they need to behave differently than usual when they are with the person who is ill: 

I know one of your favourite things is to get in my lap and read stories. Because of the cancer in my bones, I can’t hold you on my lap like I used to, which I feel sad about. Let's try lying beside one another instead.