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What to Say to Parents of a Dying Child

Updated on February 2, 2016
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What to Say to Family of Terminally Ill Child

Recently I learned that a friends child was dying. Their 15 year old son was in the last stages of untreatable cancer. The son had been successfully treated and was in remission for a year. Then they found out the horrible news that not only had the cancer come back, it had spread and was now terminal and inoperable.

Their son wanted his life to be as normal as possible so they kept the diagnosis secret from his friends and family. I can only imagine what it would be like to keep a secret like this. We only found out that the cancer had returned when he became too weak to continue school. At this time the family told his classmates and friends that he didn't have much time left. This page came about from my awkwardness in not knowing what to say when a child is dying. How can you help a family that knows their child is dying?

What Do You Say When a Child is Dying?

What to Say to Family of Terminally Ill Child

I was overcome with grief when I found out, as their son was close in age to my son. I couldn't bear the thought of the death of one of my children and felt very deeply the pain the parents must be going through. I wanted to reach out to the family but felt an awkwardness in it, because I didn't know what to say or do to help ease their pain.

If your child is dying would you want everyone reminding you of it when they saw you? I wanted to express my sadness to the parents but that would probably bring on tears for both of us. Added to that, the family had been keeping this tremendous secret for months. Remember to be a listener and allow the parents to express their grief and bereavement to you. Sometimes parents feel they need to keep silent while others express their grief to them.

Bereavement Gifts - Memory Gifts of a Dying Child

Hearing the News That Your Child is Dying

Consoling Parents Grieving for Children After a Cancer Diagnosis

Normally the grieving process starts when we hear someone has died, however in the case of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, grieving starts when you get the diagnosis that the cancer has spread and is inoperable. Being told that your child is dying is the worst news a parent can hear. The worst has already happened and their grief begins immediately.

Know that for the parents who are providing end of life care for a child, the news is already as bad as it gets, so you can't make it any worse by what you say. Being emotional shows you care and can connect with their feelings, especially when you are a parent yourself. It's more hurtful when people avoid the parents because they don't know what to say. Parents wish people would say something rather than nothing, It hurts when they see people crossing the street in order to avoid talking to them.

Comfort the Parents With Memories

Share Pictures, Stories, and Videos With the Grieving Parents

Sharing your memories and stories of the child can be wonderfully comforting for the parents, especially if it's memories about the child the parents may have forgotten about. A funny story, a forgotten memory, or anything that documents their child's life are a precious gift to bereaved parents. Help them celebrate the life of their child and write down the memories so the parents have something to look back upon and to hold onto. If you have any videos, pictures, blogs, or journals, share them because the parent may not know about them.

How to Help a Friend With a Dying Child

Is There Anything I Can Do?

One of the first things we do to support people in times of need is say, "Is there anything I can do?". Unfortunately that can be a problem because the parents are so focused on spending time with the child, and traveling back and forth to the hospital, they are too overwhelmed to come up with what needs to be done. The mundane chores take up precious time that they could be spending with their child, so offer to do laundry, shopping, or cook meals, etc. That way the family is relieved of the burden of chores and trying to figure out what people can do to help.

Once the news gets out that your child is dying there can be a lot of phone calls from well wishers so you may want to offer to help with the phone calls, or even sending out an email update. If there are siblings, offer to care for them and keep them busy. Or if the children are older, but finding it hard to spend long hours at the hospital, offer to pick them up or take them to the hospital later so their visits are shorter.

How to Help Grieving Parents - Mourning The Loss of a Child

  1. Offer to run errands or do laundry.
  2. Prepare meals.
  3. Offer to take care of emails and phone calls.
  4. Make a gift of photos or video you have of the child.
  5. Write about your memories of the child.
  6. Be a good listener.
  7. Offer to care for siblings.

What would you say or do for parents who have learned that their child is dying? - Or just leave a note to say you stopped by

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    • gottaloveit2 profile image


      5 years ago

      I was born Jewish and it's in my nature to feed. So, during any kind of tragedy, I hit the kitchen and prepare individual casseroles of macaroni and cheese, lasagna, meatloaf, etc. I then use a vacuum sealer so that the stuff can go right into my friend's freezer for later if needed. It's always appreciated. I also wash their cars.

    • kimberlyschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel, MLS 

      5 years ago from Greensboro, NC

      Thanks for addressing this issue. I have many friends who have experienced the loss of a child. Your suggestion to share a memory is excellent. One thing parents fear, I think, is that their child will be forgotten. Sharing a memory reminds them that their child is loved and will be remembered.

    • Craftypicks profile image

      Lori Green 

      6 years ago from Las Vegas

      I am a mother who was told their child has cancer. It would have been less painful if I was crushed under a bus. I can write a whole module of do's and don't. From a parents perspective I can tell you nobody lets go. On the outside they can look like they are accepting it but on the inside they aren't. Sometimes less is way more. The friends who didn't offer advice were the ones I wanted to be around. NEVER say you know how they must feel. You don't. Just listen to them when they want to vent. Don't try to make them get it out. You may end up without a friend. Watch what you say. Things get really twisted and that's why I offer the advice to just listen to them. Physical things like meals, babysitting siblings etc is the best you can do. NEVER offer to do a google search for a cure!!!

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 

      6 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      I went through the loss of a dear friend's 11 y/o son with her through email correspondence .. given the distance it was all I could do to be there for her.

    • kindoak profile image


      6 years ago

      A difficult subject. I agree that offering to help, as in doing errands and taking care of ground service is something that helps. My tip from experience - some people won't be taking the offer in time and will try to carry the burden themselves for too long - so be prepared to drop whatever you are doing if the call for help comes.

    • rainydaz profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @sherioz: Oh yes, helping out with the sibling is a great idea! I meant to put it in and forgot. Thanks for the reminder!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You are so right in your suggestions - the best thing to offer is substantial and real help with running daily life. Perhaps you could add something about helping out with the siblings of the dying child if there are no other family members who can do so.

    • EEWorkouts profile image


      6 years ago

      Not much to say that will make that situation any better. You just have to keep them in your prayers and let them know you are there for them.

      There was a little girl here locally that just lost her battle. She was six.


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