Talking to tackle taboos with Macmillan: Starting conversations with children about death and cancer

Our series of guides will take you through how to have difficult conversations about cancer and death with loved ones, and why they can be so important to have.

At Farewill, our mission is to change the way the world deals with death. We’re working hard to help people through some of life’s toughest times. A big part of that is helping people have often difficult conversations with their families about death.

Talking about death is hard. And opening up conversations with your loved ones about end of life plans can be daunting. That’s why a lot of people die without talking about what happens when they’re gone. And we’ve seen first hand that when we don’t talk about death, it can make grief a lot harder to deal with. 

At Farewill, our mission is to change the way the world deals with death. We’re working hard every day to help people through some of life’s toughest times. A big part of that is helping people have often difficult and overwhelming conversations with their families about death.

We worked closely with Sian Robinson, one of Macmillan’s incredible Support Line Service Knowledge Specialists to put together a series of three guides. Sian works on Macmillan’s support line, helping people who are going through cancer or supporting the loved ones who are caring for them. Our guides will help take you through how to have these difficult conversations with loved ones and why they can be so important to have.

  • If you're wondering how to explain a loved one’s cancer diagnosis to children or your own diagnosis, keep reading the guide below

  • If someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer and you’re supporting them through it, our guide here will be the best place to start

  • And if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re looking for tips on how to talk about it with your loved ones, this guide is for you

Conversations with children

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or your partner has, telling your children can be one of the hardest parts of starting these difficult conversations. It can be stressful and worrying and people are scared of getting it wrong.

It’s important to take time to cope with your own feelings about being diagnosed with cancer.

As Sian says “it’s important to feel as comfortable as possible when telling them”.

Some practical advice

Here are a few things Sian has suggestion, which may make speaking to your children about this a bit less overwhelming: 

  • Talk it through with others first

Your healthcare team will be able to help you with important information and questions your children may ask. Speak to the Information and Support team on the Macmillan Support line too; their team is full of experts with a lot of knowledge and brilliant insights and they are a great source of support for people going through this. Don’t forget, you’re not alone and there are people who can support you. 

Contact the Macmillan Support Line

  • Think about the age of the child and how much they already know

If you’re unsure about how much your child may know about being poorly or dying, you could start the conversation by asking them what they may know about it, and take the conversation from there. It can be more difficult to have these conversations if you assume they know something they don’t, and it’s always best to try to explain it properly.

Talking to children

Don’t forget, sometimes children can get confused when we use euphemisms to describe something. For example, using ‘lose someone’ or ‘going to a better place’, instead of dying. We know how hard it can be saying those words. Take your time and practise it out loud before having those conversations.

  • Try to give the information in bite-sized pieces

Bite-sized information is easier to process. Don’t forget, children (like adults) will need time to process everything. They may want time alone, and if they do that’s okay. An important thing to do is to check they’ve understood all the information you’ve given them, so they don’t go away feeling confused. 

They may also ask lots of questions, but don’t worry if you don’t know all of the answers. Macmillan has some amazing resources online to guide you through the process, like this booklet on ‘Preparing a Child for Loss’. There’s also the booklet ‘Talking to Children and Teenagers when an Adult has cancer’.

Starting the conversation

We suggest starting the conversation by asking how they’re feeling and if they are ready for the conversation. It can be easier for children to process the information if they feel properly prepared for it.

  • Think about where to have the conversation

Think about where you’d like to be when you have this conversation with children. For example, somewhere quiet and free from interruptions where you have lots of time to chat may work best.

It can also be helpful to have a think of who may be present and who will actually start the conversation, so it’s less overwhelming when it actually comes to it.

  • Encourage them to continue with their life as normal

As Sian says “children can often sense that something is wrong, and like to be included”. Children can sometimes blame themselves for someone close to them getting ill and as Sian mentions, they can try to ‘bargain’ things out of happening.

 For example, if they’re well behaved or go to bed on time, the person may not die. Try to encourage children to enjoy themselves and not feel guilty about what’s happened.

There’s no ‘right’ way to do it

No-one is expecting you to have the perfect conversation. We know the idea of having this conversation with children can be daunting; it’s in our nature to want to protect children and young people as much as possible. But being open and honest is usually the best approach. 

Don’t forget either, there is no right or wrong way to do this and there’s definitely no such thing as the ‘perfect’ conversation.

It’s okay to not know the answers to the questions your children may ask and it’s okay to take your time to have these conversations. Remember, you’re the expert when it comes to talking to your children about this.

Conversations and their impact

The impact of having these conversations with family and friends can be mixed. Some people feel relieved, now that their loved one’s wishes are known and that the practical side of end of life planning has been sorted. Others may feel upset and angry that their loved one is thinking about dying, when they should be focusing on living and getting better.

Some people won’t want to have the conversation at all whereas others may start to think and reflect on their own end of life plans. 

Although the impact of these conversations may be different depending on who is having them, at Farewill we’ve seen how important they can be.

Talking early with our loved ones about what we’d like to happen when we or they die, can help with planning a funeral that really honours the wishes of the person who has died. This can often be a big comfort to their family and friends who are grieving.

And having these conversations with a loved one who has cancer can even feel empowering; you’re coming together to protect their last and final wishes. And it can make you feel less alone too. 

Don’t forget, whether you’re the person who has cancer or if you’re supporting someone through it, being kind to yourself is important. Reach out to family, friends and support networks to ask for help. Macmillan’s free and confidential Support Line is open 8am-8pm, 7 days a week, for you to talk about how you’re feeling to one of their trained advisors. 

Find out how your support means Macmillan can continue to be there for people living with cancer.

Article reviewed

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