Chapter 5: Children at the bedside

Preparing children

I thought it was going to easier to explain things to my daughter – I was a nurse, after all. It was the hardest thing I had ever done because this was personal and so close to the heart for me.

While the appropriate amount of time at the bedside will vary based on both the developmental age and the personality of the child, children of all ages can benefit from being included.

It is important to prepare children for what they are likely to experience at the bedside. If the person is dying at the home of the child, the child will have the advantage of seeing the changes more gradually, which can be less startling. Some children will need a lot of information, including what could happen as death draws near, while others will need information only about what is happening now. Follow the child’s cues about how much information they want.

Below are some areas that may need to be addressed at various times, regardless of where the person is dying. Click on each phrase for more information to help with preparing children to visit with the person who is dying and explaining what is happening to that person.

When a body is getting close to dying the breathing pattern will often change. At times it may be irregular with long gaps between breaths, while at other times it may be rapid, regular, and deep. In the final days of life, the breathing may become very noisy and even make a gurgling sound, which can be upsetting for children to hear. It can help to explain this type of breathing to kids as being similar to snoring; it can sound horrible to everyone else yet not cause any discomfort to the person who is doing it. Let children know how the person’s breathing has changed before the children enter the room.

What may help

It is common for parents to be uncertain of what to expect of the dying process and, thus, find it difficult to prepare their children. Do not hesitate to ask members of the professional care team to participate in these conversations.

When having these conversations with children, use simple, concrete language. Call the illness by its name and avoid using euphemisms for dying and death. For example, a father’s liver cancer can be described as, “Dad has an illness called cancer. It is in his liver. The liver cancer is causing his body to die.”

Helpful resources
Talking to Children; For Parents Modules – Talking about dying and death