Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With a Parent`s Terminal Illness

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Infants or very young children

Infants and children under 3 don’t understand death in the same way adults do. Still, they need to be told that the parent is very sick, but not with something that you get over, like a cold or sore throat. The goal is to take advantage of the time the parent has left with the child. It’s also important to try to keep the child’s routine as normal as possible so that they feel loved, safe, and cared for. It helps children to know that Mom or Dad will be in bed more as death nears, and won’t be able to play or even talk much. Remind them that it doesn’t mean that the parent is mad or doesn’t love them. Gentle cuddling, hugging, or holding hands may be possible.

Answer any questions the child asks as honestly as possible, in words they can understand. As the child gets older, they’ll be able to understand in more detail what happened with the parent.

  • Have a parent or trusted adult who is a regular part of the child’s life spend time with the baby or child daily.
  • Keep the baby or child near the parents or regular adult caregiver if possible.
  • Get your relatives, nanny, or day care providers to help keep the baby’s or child’s routine.
  • If the parent must be away for care (in the hospital or inpatient hospice), caregivers can use video, phone, and other means so the child can see and hear them in real time.
  • Arrange for visits while they are in hospital.
  • Record lullabies, stories, and messages for after they are gone.
  • Cuddle and hug often.
  • Talk with the team social worker or nurse about your own emotions in dealing with your child’s distress.

Last Medical Review: 01/14/2015
Last Revised: 03/20/2015