Chapter 2: Preparing children to enter the ICU

Explaining dying and death

Additional Videos
“There’s nothing more we can do”(3:22)

Explaining death 

“Use the clearest, most concrete language to explain what happens at death:  that the person's body will stop working and it cannot start working again.  Phrases that are vague and unclear often leave big questions in a child's mind”. – Child life specialist

Young children may struggle to understand the abstract aspects of dying and death, such as causality and finality.

Strategies for explaining dying and death  

Roll your mouse over each of the boxes below to read each tip.


To help them understand…




Use clear, concrete language. Explain that “dead” means that a person’s heart stops beating, their lungs stop breathing, and their brain stops working so that they don’t think, hear, see, smell, or feel pain anymore.


Let them know…





The person who is ill or injured isn’t dying because they didn’t “fight hard enough” or “try hard enough” to stay alive.


Clarify that…





Even though the person will not “get better” or recover from the illness or injury, the team is working to help them be more comfortable.


Reassure them…





Sometimes children worry that talking about dying makes it more likely that the person will die. Reassure them that this isn’t so.



Conversation Prompts

“Your uncle has a lot of cancer in his body, which is causing his body to not work properly. The cancer is stronger than all of the medicines that can be used to try to get rid of it. Eventually, his body will stop working, and his body will die. When the body dies, it never works again”.  

“Even though your brother has tried really hard to stay with you and your family, his injuries are just too serious for his body to be able to keep working. That means that he will die. It’s not his fault, and if he could change things, he would”.

“Your dad is getting medicine through his IV – the tube that goes into a vein in his arm. It cannot make his disease go away, but it is taking care of the pain in his head and his body”.