Supporting Children When A Family Member Dies During COVID-19

Supporting Children When A Family Member Dies During COVID-19

It can be a frightening and confusing time for children when a family member dies. The restrictions due to COVID-19 make it more challenging to meet the needs of children, particularly when a family member dies from COVID-19 infection. Find out how you can create new opportunities to help your child in this process.

Share

Key points to remember about supporting children when a family member dies during COVID-19

He aroha whakatō, he aroha puta mai. If kindness is sown, then kindness you shall receive (Māori proverb).

  • the restrictions due to COVID-19 make it more challenging to meet the needs of your child when a family member dies from COVID-19 infection
  • the restrictions are likely to affect the ability to visit a sick and dying loved one
  • the restrictions are also likely to affect the ability to connect with friends and whānau and to comfort each other
  • when it isn't possible to visit a loved one who is dying, it is important to create new opportunities to help your child in this process

How does COVID-19 make it more challenging to support children when a family member dies?

It can be a frightening and confusing time for children when a family member dies. The restrictions due to COVID-19 make it more challenging to meet the needs of your child, particularly when a family member dies from COVID-19 infection. When visiting a sick and dying family member is not possible, your child misses out on the opportunity to talk with and farewell their loved one in person. They may also see the added distress of family members struggling with these same restrictions.

The restrictions due to COVID-19 are likely to affect the following:

  • visiting a sick and dying loved one, whether that is at their home, hospice or hospital
  • tangi, cultural and religious practices
  • connecting with friends and family members
  • comforting each other
  • sharing food and memories together
  • going to the funeral
  • visiting the graveside if there is a burial

How can I create new opportunities to help my child when a family member dies during COVID-19?

When it isn't possible to visit a loved one who is dying, it is important to create new opportunities to help your child in this process. Several things affect how you might do this:

  • your child's age
  • your family's traditions
  • cultural practices

What children need

Children need honesty with lots of love, care and consistency.

Children need honesty with lots of love, care and consistency. Clear and calm communication is important when talking with children.

Creative responses to COVID-19 restrictions

Even though so much may feel out of control, it is still important to remember that there are choices. Creative responses to these restrictions are possible and can help by not adding further distress in families. Meeting your child's needs at this time can help reduce anxiety, confusion and helplessness.

What to say about COVID-19

It can be difficult to know what to say to children about COVID-19. But, your child is likely to have heard people speaking about COVID-19 and seen it on TV and social media. Having honest conversations, approporiate for your child's age, can help them make sense of this strange time.

Coping with worry and anxiety about COVID-19

Resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to children

Having routines

As there is disruption to school and many of your child's usual activities, having a set of routines at home can be reassuring and help things feel normal. There are simple things you can do such as:

  • having breakfast together
  • creating a list of activities for the day ahead
  • sticking to usual bedtimes

Having special time with your child

Make a point of having special time with your children every day. Lots of hugs and cuddles reassure children that they are loved and safe.

Being honest with your child

Keeping your child's age in mind, it is important to be honest with them about what is happening and why things need to be different at the moment. This can help reduce confusion and fear. It is OK to say that you are sad, that you cannot visit your dying family member or go to their funeral, but that you will do something special at home instead.

How funeral directors can help

Funeral directors will be able to help your family find some significant and safe ways to farewell and honour your loved one. For instance, it may be possible to record aspects of a funeral service, something that can be kept and treasured.

Connecting online

Join with significant others online at a particular time. Share stories about your loved one, sing together, share silence together. Children can be invited to draw a special picture that can be posted online.

Memorials and anniversaries

Plan a special celebration of your loved one's life for a time when family and friends can come together in person. Use this time to write special thoughts and memories, poems and to draw special pictures. As a family, create a special place in your home or garden to remember your loved one. Use photos, significant objects, drawings and poems. Have a candle that you can take turns to light.

Connecting across distance

Books such as 'The invisible string' by Patrice Karst offer a useful way to think about connecting across distance. This is a real human need.

Some other options:

  • make a pillowcase from your loved one's clothing
  • if there is a family member in hospital, your child could blow a kiss to that person via video camera, and have a nurse draw a heart on your loved one's hand on the receiving end

Talking with your child

Some children will have lots of questions, and some won't. Follow your child's lead.

Invite them to ask questions. Children sometimes want short, simple answers. Sometimes, it is good to ask them what they think. It is OK to say that you don't know why something sad has happened, but that you are here for them and love them.

Children might express fear of the virus, and worry that other family members may also die. Remind them that there are doctors, nurses and professionals working hard to keep them safe, and people are working all over the world to find a cure/make a vaccine. Remind them of the things they can actively do to keep safe, such as washing their hands and keeping distance from others when outside.

Allowing your child to feel useful

Children cope better if they feel useful. Asking a child to draw a picture for somebody, or help with household tasks, help them to feel more useful and empowered.

Looking after yourself

How you manage this time directly affects how your child manages. Look after yourself.

Remind yourself, as well as your child, that you will get through this.

There are several useful websites listed below. They make suggestions about how to talk with children about the virus.

Where can I go for other useful information on talking to children about COVID-19? 

KidsHealth - Coping with worry and anxiety about COVID-19 and Resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to children

The Ministry of Education's website - Talking to children about COVID-19

The New Zealand Psychological Society website - Emergencies and traumatic events

Acknowledgements

The content on this page is adapted from Supporting children when a family member dies during COVID-19 (PDF, 173KB) - developed by the New Zealand Paediatric Palliative Care Clinical Network, Paediatric Society of New Zealand. 

This page last reviewed 17 April 2020.
Email us your feedback


On this page