If you are reading this because you have to tell a child someone they love has died please let me start by offering my deepest condolences to you and your family during such a devastating time.
Here – with advice and guiding principles – I will share my real life experience of how we compassionately told our son that his little brother and best friend had died.
Our Real life Example of How We told Our Son His Little Brother Had Died
I remember it like it was yesterday. Adam was gone. Jackie, Adam’s Mum, and I were in the hospital confused and broken, in a total state of trauma induced shock and disbelief. While trying to process everything – our past, our present, our future and our loss – our thoughts turned to our son Harry. As a gut wrenching fear and anguish consumed us as, we realised the enormity of the impending and impossible task we would have to face.
How would we tell our 6 year old son his brother had died”
Knowing the reaction my own mind and body had to the sudden loss of Adam I was in agony over the anticipation of how this tragedy could effect Harry who never even had a chance to say good bye to Adam, his best friend. I knew the manner in which we told him, how we would comfort him and how we behaved around him would define the rest of his life and determine his future happiness and how he would live his life.
Somehow overcoming our own devastating grief Jackie’s maternal instinct took over as she scrambled to get advice and information on how to tell Harry that Adam was gone. Jackie’s efforts were rewarded with 4 key guiding principles to help tell our child his brother died.
Guiding Principles and advice on how to tell a child their sibling has died
- Be Honest
- Be Clear on what happened without the scary details (they would come later)
- Emphasise the finality of death and from now on living is continued inside our hearts & minds.
- Make time for and answer all questions
That was it, that was our only guide to help us tell Harry his brother died.
There was very little time, we had to act fast as Adam was going to repose in his own bed until the funeral. Harry would be then exposed to sadness, grief and death as soon as Adam’s remains arrived back at the house. It was our job to make the experience beautiful, spiritual, powerful and positive to steady him for what he was about to endure – sadness confusion and grief.
Having prepared the bedroom Harry and Adam shared to receive Adams remains we called Harry in to sit on Adam’s Bed. Exhausted, confused, numb and in shock Jackie and I sat down and held Harrys hand. The warm glow of a candle flickered on a small dresser, laden with a crisp white linen tablecloth and a vase with small white flowers. Somehow it seemed as if Harry already knew what we were about to tell him.
The moment of truth, we have something to tell you
Jackie began, “Harry we have something we need to tell you about Adam.” A nod and a gentle change of expression directed Jackie to proceed.
“Remember yesterday when Adam had a bad headache and dad brought him to hospital.” A more apprehensive nod this time in fearful anticipation of what was to come.
“Well, when Adam went into hospital he get very sick very quickly. So the Doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They took a picture of inside his head and discovered why he was not well for the last few days. They found a hurt on his brain that was very serious caused by a sickness called Cancer. Because his hurt was so bad the doctors decided they would need to do an operation to see if they could make Adam better. But during the operation they realised that Adam’s hurt was very bad and that they could not make him better so they brought Adam back to us. He was asleep and not in any pain.”
“Dad and I held his hand sang to him, rubbed his head, hugged and kissed him told him how much we all love him and how much you love him and how much fun you always had with him. Even though he was asleep, the doctors told us he could hear what we were saying and that he was not afraid. But because his hurt was so bad it could not be fixed by the doctors and Adam died this morning in our arms surrounded by Love and Beauty and in Peace. We think maybe the angels needed him to help them do important work to make other people in the world happy the way he made us happy and that is why he had to go ”
Harry buried his head into Jackie’s chest and arms, he wept softly and quietly for a moment. We all hugged tightly, remaining still and silent sitting on Adam’s bed as a family together.
Preparing for the Final Good Bye
After some time we felt we needed to continue to prepare Harry for what was going to happen next. “Harry, Adam’s body will be coming here to the house in a coffin. He will stay with us for a night so you will get to see him one last time before he has his funeral. He will not be able to talk to you and will look like he is just asleep and he won’t be able to wake up. But you can talk to him and tell him how much you love him and that you will always remember him. Then we will have a funeral to celebrate Adam. When it is over you will never be able to see Adam again only in pictures and in our family videos. You are going to miss him because you won’t be able to play with him or talk to him and he won’t be able to come back and visit you.”
“You will have lots of questions and we promise to always tell you the truth and what we believe to be true. But remember Harry, we will never forget Adam and we will always remember him, talk about him and he will always live in our minds and our hearts. Adam loved you so much we are sure he will always watch out for you, guide you to do good things and make sure you live an amazing and happy life. So hopefully every time you see a happy person maybe that’s because Adam worked his magic and it’s his way of saying hello.”
As time went on we kept our word, kept Adam’s memory alive inside our hearts and minds and answered all Harrys questions as honestly as we could. We also felt it was so important for Harry to see us being strong as a family, fight for happiness share our emotions and grieve positively in celebration of our beautiful boy.
What we did that day was to tell harry about death in the most positive way we could so that the experience would not define him or his life.
I would like to finish by giving you hope and something to hold onto by telling you that 15 years later Harry is a very happy young man who has an amazing future ahead of him. Recently he gave Jackie and I joy when he told us…
“In fairness mum and dad you absolutely nailed it on how you dealt with Adam’s Death and how you treated me.”
So fear not of their future they will be OK with honesty, love and hope.
More information and Useful resources
For more information advice and guiding principles on how to tell a child someone they love has died try reading our Advice and techniques on how to tell console and comfort a child through grief.
Anam Cara Supporting Parents after Berievement.
HUGG Healing Untold Grief Groups
Marie Cuire Care and Support through terminal illness
All my deepest Love, Hugs and Kisses to you and your beautiful family