The death of a parent is a very difficult situation for a child to face. Unfortunately, 1 in 20 Australian children will experience the death of a parent, and it is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to guide and support them through their grief. It’s hard to know what to say to a child when their parent dies.
Grief is an emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting process, so make sure you practice self-care. Although you may feel the need to be available to your child at all times, it’s important that you also look after yourself and your own grief. Here are some recommendations on how to approach the topic of death and what to say to a child when a parent dies.
How to tell a child their parent has died
Telling a child their parent has died will always be difficult. If you’re lost for words and don’t know what to say to a child when a parent dies, you’re not alone. Death is an uncomfortable topic for adults, so we often avoid discussing it with our children. However, delaying the news of their parent’s death or trying to soften your words will not help you child nor will it lessen their pain.
If you are in a position where you need to inform a child of their parent’s death, this is what you can do:
- Create a safe space: You should choose a quiet space where you can talk without distractions. Include another adult if their presence will comfort your child or you.
- Be prompt & honest: When approaching your child about the death of their parent, use care and be direct: “I need to tell you something important that will be hard to talk about. Dad died today.” Pause, give your child a moment to process this information, and answer the questions they ask you honestly. Use age-appropriate language when discussing the details of the death, if you have multiple children then start with the language appropriate for the youngest child.
- Be straight-forward: Selecting the right words is important when deciding what to say to a child when a parent dies. Use words when talking about the death, like “died”, “death”, and “cancer”. Euphemisms like “passed away”, “not well”, and “went away” are too vague and can confuse children. They also might lead to your child jumping to wrong conclusions, like thinking everyone who is sick will die, or their parent will come back.
- Establish open communication: Your child will have a lot of questions, and you may not know all the answers. This is ok, you just need to keep the lines of communication open so your child feels comfortable voicing their thoughts and feelings. Talk about your feelings and show that you are available to answer questions they have. Including your child in your grief and keeping them informed will help them feel more in control and secure in the knowledge that your family will get through this together.
- Provide comfort: Children will react differently to the news their parent has died, some will cry, some will ask questions, some will get angry, and some may not seem to react at all. It is important that you remain close to your child during the conversation, reinforce that you are both safe, offer hugs, and highlight that they will be cared for and loved no matter what. Body language and non-verbal communication can be just as important as what you say to a child when their parent dies.
- “You are not to blame”: Children tend to believe they cause things to happen by what they say or do, so you need to reassure them by emphasising that their parent’s death wasn’t caused by anything they said or did.
- Discuss next steps: The death of a parent will inevitably change your child’s regular routine. Be clear about any new arrangements that have been made so your child can anticipate those changes, for example: “I will pick you up from school like Mum used to.”
- Funerals & Memorials: It can be helpful to include your child in mourning rituals, like viewings, funerals, and memorials. Make sure you explain ahead of time what they should expect. Offer your child a role in the rituals as even a small role can help them take control of the emotional situation and give them a memory of being involved in the collective grief. Of course, you should let your child decide whether or not they would like to take part.
For more information on what to say to a child when a parent dies and how to parent your child through the initial stages of grief, visit our parenting resources hub, or download our brochures on parenting through immediate loss for children aged 7-9, 10-13, or 14-17.
How to support your child after the death of a parent
Once the funeral is over, normal life returns, but it is difficult because normal life for you and your child is different to what it was before the death. There is no easy or correct way to navigate these changes, but here are some ideas for you to consider:
Communication is vital
The death of a parent is traumatic for children, it can make them feel the world is no longer a safe place. They will have a lot of questions, concerns, thoughts, and feelings, you need to make sure they feel comfortable expressing all of them to you. By listening intently and supportively, you can create a sense of safety and support for your child, which will be both reassuring and comforting to them.
You may not always have all the answers, and you may not always know the “right thing” to say to a child when a parent dies, but this isn’t what your child needs. Instead of going straight into problem-solving mode, you should feel with your child. Confronting and working through difficult emotions together will help your child learn to accept and manage them more effectively.
Try to maintain your child’s typical routine to the best of your ability, this includes their normal roles and responsibilities at home, in school, and in the community. They will wish to withdraw from these activities in the initial weeks after the death, this is understandable and you should give them this space, but re-engaging in these normal routines is important for your child’s health. It also allows them to move forward in their grieving process.
Physical and family connection
Give hugs! You and your child are going through a very lonely and trying time, hugs and cuddles will help both of you feel connected, and it will give your child a sense of safety and support. If you need some ideas on appropriate connection activities following the death of a parent, access our list of activities here. You can also seek support from family and friends to help look after your child following the death, this will reinforce to your child that they are surrounding by a loving support network and it will give you a break when your own grieving process becomes overwhelming.
Empower your child
When possible, give your child choices and respect their thoughts and decisions. They have opinions and they will feel valued when they’re given a voice in important matters. Leaving your child out of decisions regarding their parent’s memorialisation can hinder their grieving process.
Remember their parent
Keep pictures of their parent in the house, create a memory box with your child, go through rituals and remembrance activities – although it can be painful to be reminded of the person who has died, it’s important for you and your child to reflect on happy moments and fond memories. This will help you both process your emotions and will move you along in the grieving process.
Ultimately, what you want to do is create a safe and eventually happy environment for you and your child. For more information on what to say to a child when a parent dies and how to parent your child through the initial stages of grief, visit our parenting resources hub, or download our brochures on parenting in the first year after a death for children aged 7-9, 10-13, or 14-17.
Grief Services and Support
Although the death of your child’s parent can make you and your child feel lonely, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed, you should practice self-care and reach out to access additional grief support services.
Feel the Magic offers free camps to help support you and your child in the difficult time following the death of a parent. If you would like to join a support network of other families who understand what you’re currently experiencing, you should join our grief community. Have more questions about what to say to a child when a parent dies or how to support a child through their grieving process? Please submit an enquiry and we will contact you as soon as possible.