Purpose of review
An up-to-date summary of the literature on children's and adolescents’ understanding of their own terminal illness and death.
Clinicians still find it difficult to speak with pediatric patients about death even though guidelines for facilitating communication on the topic exist. As a result, pediatric patients are less likely to develop a clear understanding of their illness and there is a disconnect between clinicians and parents about prognosis, even when clinicians have concluded there is no longer possibility for cure. Insufficient communication and poor understanding may increase the risk of patients feeling isolated, mistrustful and anxious, and deprive them of a role model who can communicate about painful issues or share difficult feelings. Despite these complexities, young people often show remarkable resiliency in the face of death and want to get the most out of the remaining time they have.
In addition to these most recent findings, this review examines the challenges in researching this topic, obstacles to patients receiving information about prognosis, and how physical symptoms affect patients’ ability to develop an understanding. It also reviews sources of insight into pediatric patients’ understanding including the development of concepts of death, fears about their own death, legal interpretations of what patients understand, and how terminally ill young people continue to treasure life. It concludes by addressing ways clinicians can use the knowledge we have to communicate well with dying children and adolescents and their families.