Someone Has Died From an Illness: What Do I Tell My Child?

Someone Has Died From an Illness: What Do I Tell My Child?

Kenny Scott | Sep 29, 2016 | Child bereavement

Are you unsure how to explain to your child about the death of a loved one through illness?

Death and terminal illness can be incredibly difficult subjects to talk about with children – after all, it seems so unfair that some people get ill and die young whilst others carry on well into their 80s and 90s – and having to explain this to a child can be tough when you’re also experiencing grief of your own.

You may be feeling worried that your child might not cope well with the news, or perhaps you’re concerned that they might not fully understand why their loved one or family member has died.

However, as a children’s grief counsellor, I know it’s so important to explain to children exactly what has happened and why, or they may end up feeling scared that the same thing might happen to them.

Below, I’m going to talk more about how to explain to a child about death through terminal or sudden illness, and how to help them cope with the loss.

How to explain to a child about illness

There are two main scenarios when dealing with death through illness; the first is the scenario where the friend or family member has been ill for some time. I find in this instance, explaining the illness and what to expect at different stages will help a child understand and prepare for their loss.

The second scenario involves a sudden death due to illness, in which case there will be much more likelihood of shock, disbelief and confusion. In this instance, it’s so important to be honest about what has happened and ensure the child understands why the person has died.

A good approach for either of these scenarios is to explain to your child that we all need our bodies to live, and when our body becomes ill and medicine doesn’t make it better, it will eventually just stop working. And when someone’s body isn’t working anymore, it means they have died.

This way of explaining things generally works for children of all ages, and is a very straightforward and matter-of-fact approach that they can easily understand.

As an example, I once worked with a child whose dad had died very suddenly of a heart attack. It was difficult for him to understand as one minute his dad was there at the house when he went to school, and the next, he was suddenly gone forever.

This is such a huge concept to understand, and probably won’t be taken in for a long time. During our counselling session together, we looked at what a heart attack is and how it affects the body and why sometimes people die from heart attacks.

It was important for him to understand that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it, as no-one had known it was coming. There can be a lot of ‘what ifs’ in these situations, and the last thing a child needs is to think they should have done anything differently or that it was in any way their fault.

How should I help my child grieve?

All children deal with grief differently, just like adults do. However, you should bear in mind that they won’t necessarily have the skills to know how to deal with this situation, so will be watching others to see how they grieve – almost like they’re looking for permission to cry, be angry etc.

Some will want to talk straight away and ask lots of questions, whereas others won’t and may prefer someone asking them questions about how they’re feeling. Some children won’t want to talk at all, and that’s okay, too.

The best thing to do is to be open with them, ensure you’re there for them, and encourage them to ask any questions they want. It’s also important to let them know that you’re also sad about what’s happened.

In some cases, (especially young) children often have difficulties accepting death is final, and may occasionally ask where the friend or family member is – in which case you should just repeat that they have died and won’t be coming back. Just keep comforting the child and talking to them.

What if my child is very upset?

If your child is extremely upset about losing a loved one, that’s okay. You should let them be upset and express how they are feeling, but sit with them if they want you there – they may also ask to be on their own for a bit, and this is fine, too.

Sometimes it’s easier for children to talk or be upset with people who aren’t as close to the situation. For example, if their dad has died, the child may feel they have to put on a strong front to stop their mum being more upset, but it’s important to explain that their mum is already upset and it’s okay for them to be, too.

However, if they do seem more comfortable speaking to someone else, then help to make that a possibility, too, so they are able to express their grief and be sad without worrying too much.


I’m sorry for your loss, and I hope this blog has gone some way to helping you explain to your child about the loss of a loved one through illness. It’s such a difficult subject, so you might also want to take a look at my blog entitled: ‘How Will My Child Feel After Losing a Family Member?’ for more guidance. for more guidance.

If you’re looking for ideas for what to do with your loved one’s ashes, you’re welcome to read our ebook: ‘6 Things You Can Do With Your Loved One’s Ashes’.