Visiting a relative who is dying can be both challenging and rewarding. For children, it can be a difficult but important experience in helping them understand what is happening to their loved one.
Think about why you want them to visit
It is important to think about why you want your child to visit a dying relative. Is it an opportunity to be together as a family, to create memories, or to say goodbye? Knowing why you want your child to visit and what your goals are will help you talk to and prepare your child for a visit.
Let them know what to expect
It is important to talk to your child in advance about what they may expect to see when visiting a relative who is dying. Talk to them about the environment they are visiting – whether it is at home, in hospital or a hospice – and any rules they may need to observe whilst there. Explain to them that their loved one may look different and how – whether than be a change in their physical appearance, or the presence of medical and life support equipment in the room. Remind them that even though they may look different, their loved one is still the same person.
Ask them what they would like and how long they’d like to stay
Illness and death come with a lack of control for everyone, but especially for children who may struggle to understand what is happening. Give them some control and influence by asking them what they would like to do during their visit, and how long they would like to stay. Perhaps they would like to do a drawing to give to their loved one? Or take some photos in to look through of happy memories. If your child is overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to leave or take a break. It can be a good idea to have a reason to leave, to look at the garden or get a drink for example and then to offer the child to return again if this is their wish.
Bring something to do. Its fine to bring in colouring or a game or device if this will help relax the focus on talking at the visit. Sometimes just being in the same room is as helpful as making a visit too formal.
Be prepared for questions
Children are naturally inquisitive, and younger children may find it difficult to understand what is happening, and to grasp the concept of illness or death.
Be prepared for them to ask questions, and answer them as openly and honestly as you feel comfortable; the staff and volunteers are here to help as well. Use simple but clear terms, and with younger children don’t be afraid to repeat yourself – it may take a while for things to sink in. You may find our advice on how to talk about death with children and teenagers helpful.
To watch a short film on how to talk about death and dying with loved ones, visit our resources page.