What to do after a child has died

What to do after a child has died

Facing the death of your own child is one of the toughest life experiences. It may have been expected after illness, or unexpected and sudden. After the death of a child or young person, a number of different people are likely to become involved. Who is involved will depend on how your child died. 

Key points to remember

  • facing the death of your own child is one of the toughest life experiences
  • many parents and carers often have a strong need to understand exactly what happened and, as far as possible, why - this is a part of trying to take it all in and making sense of it
  • it can be helpful to have a support person through this time
  • after the death of a child or young person, a number of different people are likely to become involved - who is involved will depend on how your child died
  • trying to get on with life after your child has died is very hard because at first, every minute can be full of reminders
  • you might think that you are losing your mind, but you're not - you're responding in a normal way to a terrible event

Helpful information

Facing the death of your own child is one of the toughest life experiences. It may have been expected after illness, or unexpected and sudden. Here is some information you may find helpful. Some of it may apply to your own situation, some of it may not.

Finding out

Many parents and carers often have a strong need to understand exactly what happened and, as far as possible, why. This is a part of trying to take it all in and making sense of it. Remember:

Ask all the questions you need to

Ask all the questions you need to - ask your family doctor, the hospital staff, emergency service workers, Victim Support or police. Ask others to find out for you if you need to.

It may help to see your child's body

It may help to see your child's body, although sometimes this may not be possible. Hospital staff or a funeral director can arrange this. Many parents and carers find it helpful to have this opportunity to really take in what has happened, and to say their own personal things to their child.

Letting others know

You will probably need to tell others about the death. It may help to:

  • make a list of who to tell
  • ask someone else you trust to let these people know
  • find a short phrase you can use to say what's happened so that you can avoid long conversations at this early time

Telling brothers and sisters, or cousins

Every child and teenager is different and will react in individual ways. Their age, and the shock, will influence what they can take in and understand at this point.

Find a quiet place

Find a quiet, private place to tell them what's happened, if possible.

Explain key facts

Explain key facts simply and honestly, and check they understand.

Repeat information

Repeat key information later on, in case they haven't taken it in, or have misunderstood.

Let them talk 

Let them talk about what's happened. It helps them make sense of it.

Answer questions

Answer questions as best you can. The directness of their questions may be unsettling. Some children and teenagers might also ask questions later on, even months or years later.

Talk about death

Talk about death with them, in ways that suit their age. Many parents find it helpful to explain death as part of life, using some examples in nature, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons change, or plants or animals being hurt or injured so much they can no longer stay alive.

Let them know they are loved

Let them know – and show them - they are loved, cared for and safe.

For further information on supporting your child or teen through grief, see:

Using a support person

It can be helpful to have a support person through this time. They might help with transport, or listen and remember things for you, and be able to talk with you about things that are on your mind. If you wish, they could speak on your behalf, and can be with you if you become upset.

When people hear the news

In the days ahead it is likely that people will want to express their sadness to you, and to offer their support. This can be great, but it can also be overwhelming. Remember:

  • share only the information you want to share
  • you don't have to see or speak to everyone who wants to contact you. You can choose who you want to contact and others can take messages, or can contact them on your behalf. You can always catch up again later on, when things have settled down more
  • an answer phone or sign on your door can be helpful ways to let others know you need some time for yourself
  • people are likely to offer help, so have a think about what things they could possibly do. Perhaps it may help if others cooked some meals for you, cleaned, babysat, took calls or did messages

People who may be involved after your child has died

After the death of a child or young person, a number of different people are likely to become involved. Who is involved will depend on how your child died.

A doctor or hospital staff

If your child became ill suddenly, or has been unwell for some time, your doctor or hospital staff will be able to talk with you about what has happened and why. They may also be able to provide some helpful information and support for you in these early days.

The police

The police are called to every sudden death to investigate its cause. The police are required to gather information and sometimes interview family and friends of the person who has died. The investigation can be distressing at times.

Victim Support

After a sudden death, the police will offer to contact Victim Support for you. Victim Support is a community organisation of trained volunteers who support people after trauma. Their service is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day and offers practical advice and help. Anyone bereaved by suicide can contact them directly through their local police station. You can also ask Victim Support or the police for a free copy of their helpful booklet 'Information for bereaved families'.

Safety investigators

After an accidental death there is likely to be a safety investigation, to find out why the accident happened and to establish any information that will prevent similar accidents happening in the future. The investigation can be distressing but is required.

CYMRC (Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee)

The CYMRC is a committee, appointed by the Minister of Health, which studies the lives and deaths of children and young people aged 28 days to 24 years. Reducing child and youth deaths is very important, so the law gives the CYMRC strong powers to collect information from wherever it needs to, about every death of a child and young person. The Committee's aim is to find ways to prevent such deaths in the future.

The CYMRC website provides information for parents and families, and an information brochure (PDF, 3.14MB) (below) about the Child and Youth Mortality Review process.

The Committee would like you to tell them about your experience. This may help them to get a more complete picture of how and why some deaths happen. If you would like to contribute to the Committee's work, you can fill out the parent or family report to the CYMRC. Any information you provide on this form is confidential and goes straight to the national committee as well as being seen by the local review group (many but not all centres in New Zealand have one). 

Information brochure about Child and Youth Mortality Review

Duty funeral director

Unless your child has died in hospital, the police will call a duty funeral director to take their body to the hospital morgue, which may or may not be close to where you live. This is free. You don't have to choose this funeral director to help you from then on, but you may.

Chosen funeral director

To contact a funeral director, ask friends or relatives for their suggestions or search online. Ask what the costs will be, so you can find a funeral director most suited to your situation.

The funeral director has a key role in providing information and has the skills to assist you. You can ask a funeral director to do as little or as much as you would like. It is always your choice and a funeral director can provide advice about the options available. For example, they may:

  • help to arrange what happens to your child's body
  • arrange for other family, whānau and friends to see your child, if you want this
  • help with arrangements around any cultural needs or special requests you may have
  • talk with you about your requests about the funeral, tangi or other memorial event, and make necessary arrangements
  • make available information about autopsy and coroner requirements
  • arrange cremation or burial procedures
  • help you obtain a death certificate
  • arrange a death notice in the newspaper, if you want one
  • provide information about how to obtain financial assistance; for example, for funeral costs

Funeral directors know how painful this experience is for you, and for your family, whānau and friends. Their job is to make things as straight forward and supportive for you as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask them for exactly what you want.

The coroner

After any sudden, accidental or unexplained death, the police must report the death and details of their investigation to the coroner. The coroner's job is to then establish the identity of the person who died, and the date, place, cause and circumstances of the death.

To find out this information, the coroner may ask a pathologist to surgically examine your child's body. A pathologist is a doctor who specialises in diagnosing diseases and causes of death. A pathologist's examination is called a post-mortem or autopsy and it attempts to make clear why the death occurred.

The coroner recognises that requiring an autopsy may cause families distress and anxiety. They will try to take into account your concerns, and any cultural needs. Delays will always be kept to a minimum so your child's body can be released for burial or cremation. An iwi liaison police officer is available to Māori families, to act as a go-between and raise any cultural concerns with the coroner's office.

Funeral arrangements can only go ahead when a required post-mortem has been completed. At this point, the coroner then authorises the body's release.

A public inquiry, called an inquest, is then held by a coroner to establish the facts about the death. It is usually held in a courtroom, which is open to the public and the media. It can happen many weeks or months after your child has died. The inquest is often a very stressful time for families and close friends. It can be very helpful to have a support person with you.

The media is allowed to publish the name of your child, and their address, the fact that an inquest was held, and what the coroner has said caused the death. Any publication of other details of the proceedings can be made only with the coroner's authority. Coroners are very aware of how sensitive these issues are for families and whānau.

The pathologist's autopsy report is available to parents, if they wish to see it, by requesting a copy of it from the Coronial Services Office. Your doctor or other health professional can help you understand any medical terms used in the report. It can contain graphic and often distressing details, so you may like to think about having someone with you when you read it. Copies of some material might not be available if the coroner has ordered that certain material is not to be published.

Image of the cover of the book - When someone dies: A guide to the Coronial Services of New ZealandYou may ask for a copy of the inquest proceedings from the Coronial Services Office, Ministry of Justice, PO Box 5027, Wellington. Items that can be obtained include:

  • the coroner’s findings about the cause of death
  • any recommendations made by the coroner
  • any written evidence presented at the inquest

You can read information about the work of the Coroner online and download a copy of the booklet When someone dies.

The media

The media includes journalists, photographers and camera operators from television, newspapers and magazines.

People from the media are able to report the story of your child's death immediately, or at the time of the coroner’s inquest, as explained above. If you would like suppression of your child’s name until all your relatives have been contacted, ask the police to arrange this.

Many parents naturally find media reports about their child’s death distressing and very stressful. This can be especially so if some of the details have been incorrectly reported. You don’t have to hear or see reports if you don’t want to, but it can be hard to avoid.

You do not have to speak with the media if they ask you to comment.

If you do speak with the media:

  • ask for their names and contact details and exactly what it is they want. If you feel pressured, call them back or ask someone else to call them on your behalf
  • some members of the media can be persistent and aggressive. Be clear and firm with them. Don't be pushed into doing or saying anything you don't want to
  • consider choosing one spokesperson to speak on your behalf. Make sure you make it very clear what can be said publicly and what cannot. Writing it down can help
  • try not to say publicly, comments that may be later regretted
  • think about the questions you may be asked and consider the sorts of answers you can have ready
  • it is important to know that any information, photos or film footage you allow to be used may be used in the future without your permission – even years later

To check for accuracy, you could ask to be shown the content of the media's report before it is made public.

Finally

Finally, remember as you go through this time, look after yourself as well as you can. Trying to get on with life after your child has died is very hard because at first, every minute can be full of reminders. Every minute, the sadness and grief can be close to the surface. And every minute life goes on, things have to be done and it's hard to keep going. You might think that you are losing your mind, but you’re not – you're responding in a normal way to a terrible event.

The content on this page has been developed by the Paediatric Society New Zealand in collaboration with Skylight. It is used here with the permission of Skylight. The content has been approved by the Paediatric Palliative Care Clinical Network. 
© Skylight 2017

This page last reviewed 13 April 2017.
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