Chapter 6: Preparing for an approaching death


I've been there
Omo explains how they managed the uncertainty of the "last visit".(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
Cath shares how she prepared her kids for the approaching death of their grandpa. (3:22)Video transcript

I was afraid the kids would freak out when they saw their mom hooked up to all these tubes so I took some pictures to prepare them for what they'd see. 

 We had to explain to the kids that Meghan really wanted to see them but because of the brain tumour, she needed a lot of quiet. So we had short but frequent visits during her final weeks with only one child visiting at a time. 

Whether the person who is dying is in the home or a health care facility, it’s important to prepare your children for what they’re likely to see and hear as the illness advances. Ask what their biggest worries are about this person’s dying so that you can address their concerns directly.  

Physical changes

If there have been changes in the person's condition or appearance, describe these before your child enters the room.

  • If the person is dying at your child’s home, they have the advantage of seeing the changes more gradually, which can be less startling.
  • If the person is dying in a hospital, hospice or nursing home, the changes may be more obvious because of the time between visits.

Medical equipment

  • Let them know if they’ll see unfamiliar equipment such as an IV, oxygen mask, ventilator and any other tubing or medical devices.
  • When possible, take a photo of the person connected to medical equipment, and show this to your child before their visit.
    • Invite them to ask questions about anything they see in the photo.
  • Describe the equipment and what each device is for. For instance:
    • An IV may be giving the person extra, healthy blood.  Some children fear the blood is actually being removed.
    • A ventilator helps blow fresh air into a person’s lungs. 

Visiting rules

It helps children to know how they’re expected to behave when spending time with someone who's dying.

  • Let them know what they can do, such as touch or talk to the person.
  • Explain what they can’t do and why – especially if it’s something they’re used to like jumping into a lap. Some children mistakenly think the person will die sooner if they do something wrong.
  • Let them know if:
    • The room needs to be quiet.
    • There’s equipment they shouldn’t touch – such as a pump for pain medication.

Making it easier

  • Some children find it helps to have their favourite stuffed animal or comfort object with them.
  • Let them know they can take a break from being in the room.
    • Perhaps pre-arrange a signal, such as an ear tug, which they can easily use to indicate they need a break. 

Last Visits

It’s not always possible to know which visit will be the last. If death is close, let your children know that this may be their last chance to be with the person while they are alive.  This gives them the chance to say goodbye, or to just spend time with the person.

Being present for the death

Ask your child if they are hoping to be there when the person dies. Put a plan in pace if this is the case.

Let them know:

  • You will try your best to make this happen, but it may not be possible to know when the person will die.  
  • Someone other than you may have to bring them to where the person is dying. Talk with them about who this person should be.