Tips for Discussing a COVID Death with Children

Families going through a death by COVID-19 may be experiencing thoughts and feelings that are especially difficult to process and it may seem more threatening/scary due to the nature and depth of this pandemic we are all experiencing.  As with any death, it is important to discuss the cause of death openly and honestly at an age appropriate level.  Some key tips to remember are: 

  • Children often only need simple answers.  There is no need to go into lengthy explanations.  Provide simple, basic information, and then pause to see what questions they have.  If a child asks a question that you do not know the answer to, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or to say “That’s a good question.  I’m wondering the same thing.”  This role models that grown-ups don’t know sometimes too. 
  • Discussing the cause of death may be different based on what your child(ren) already knows about COVID-19.  If you haven’t already, you will need to provide some basic information on COVID-19, including:
    • COVID-19 is a new virus that is very contagious.  It is so contagious that we are all taking extra precautions to stay healthy.
    • It’s so new that there is not a vaccine to prevent a person from catching it and there is no cure.
    • Most people who become sick with COVID-19 do recover.
    • Some people do become very, very, very sick when they catch COVID-19.
    • Doctors and nurses are doing everything they can to help people who become very, very sick with COVID-19.  They are trying new treatments every single day.
    • Sometimes people who become very, very, very sick with COVID-19 have difficulty breathing.  When this happens, doctors may decide to try using a ventilator to help the person breathe (see SandCastles article on Explaining Ventilators to Children).
    • Sometimes a person becomes so very, very, very sick, that their body cannot fight off the infection no matter how hard their body tries to or how much doctors/nurses try to help. 
      • The person’s brain may become very, very, very hurt or very, very sick and it cannot help send the right signals to the person’s heart, lungs, and other organs to keep them working. 
      • When this happens, their heart stops beating, they can no longer breathe, talk, eat, drink, go to the bathroom, feel pain, or move and they die (see SandCastles article on Explaining a Death to Children).
  • It’s important to remain calm and reassuring, yet also be mindful that you cannot “promise” them that this will not happen to someone else they know and love.  Educate them on all the steps you are taking to keep everyone healthy such as:
    • Washing our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice).
    • Practicing “social distancing” which is maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 feet from others and staying home when authorities tell you to.
    • Wearing masks and/or gloves and using hand sanitizer when we leave our homes and when we go places.
  • Your child(ren) may ask you if you are going to get sick with COVID-19 and die too.
    • Let them know that you are doing everything you can to stay healthy.
    • Remind them that most people who get COVID-19 recover.
    • Let them know who will take care of them if you become sick.  This is often a very hard topic for parents and caregivers to discuss, yet it provides children with a plan and gives them something to rely on when things around them seem so unpredictable and scary.
  • Let them know that no one is responsible.  It is not the child(ren)’s fault that their person became sick with COVID-19.  It is also not the person who died’s fault. COVID-19 is a new and very contagious illness that sometimes can still be caught despite all the precautions in place, yet no one is to blame.
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