Medical Diagnosis: How to Tell the Kids

Learning that you, your spouse or another family member suffers from an incurable illness or injury is devastating. After the initial shock, you may wonder how to break the news to your children.

“What we try and tell parents is that we can’t fix things that are heartbreaking, but we can make them easier to understand,” says Heather Kinney, CCLS, CPST, a senior child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCU).

Kinney is part of an interdisciplinary team called “Helping Children of Adult Patients” (HCAP). Ten years ago, VCU Medical Center, which has a Level I trauma center, began the unique-to-Richmond collaboration with Children’s Hospital to help families cope in the midst of crisis.

How much to tell? Process the information yourself before talking to your kids. You may wish to have another adult present for emotional support. Kinney suggests starting the conversation with: “I have something really important that we need to talk about. Do you think you are ready to listen?”

“A good rule of thumb is to be as honest as you can while taking into consideration where the child is developmentally,” says Crista Donewar, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Children’sHealth System Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

Decide whether to tell siblings together or separately. Consider their ages, personalities, the nature of the situation and what feels right to you.

Most of all, “guard against trying to shield kids from information because what they’re imaginingcan be worse than reality,” says Allison DeLaney, chaplain and bereavement coordinator, Hospice House and Support Care of Williamsburg. “What’s surprising is that kids often do better than the adults if given the chance.”

Managing questions. Some children ask many questions while others won’t ask any right away. Kids also ask the same questions again as the situation sinks in.

“The first thing kids want to know is ‘Are you going to die?’” Kinney says. “Kids look to their parents to tell them the truth. If the first thing you tell them is a lie, how do they know to trust you again? We all deserve the truth about the people we love.”

Kids typically wonder how the information will affect them. For example, they might worry that “If mom dies, what if something happens to Dad? Who will take care of me?” And they may privately wonder, “Did I do something that caused this to happen?”

“Assure them that it’s not their fault,” DeLaney says.

Seek support. Your child may need to talk to someone else about her feelings. Connect with one of her close friend’s parents or tap available community resources. Also, surround yourself with your own adult
support network.


Help your child build positive memories with a dying loved one by creating legacy items.
  • Handprint of loved one that a child can decorate for a garden stone.
  • Healing journal or memory journal that includes life review questions and answers.
  • Parent can write letters to children.
  • Personal storytelling that impart morals, values and life experiences.


Bereavement Resources for Children and Adolescents

Newport News

Kidz n’ Grief: A well-established program with separate groups for each age group and a support group for caregivers.
Contact: Beth Pile, Bon Secours, (757) 737-2287

Mikey’s Camp: Fall camp for kids and teens who are healing from the death of a loved one.
Contact: Beth Pile, Bon Secours, (757) 737-2287


Camp Lighthouse (Sentara), Jamestown 4-H Educational Center
To register, email, or call (757) 736-0709


Parents Support Group

Young Widows and Widowers: