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 do not 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, and to keep the child’s routine as normal as possible so that the child feels loved, safe, and cared for. As death nears, it helps children to know that Mom or Dad will be in bed more, and won’t be able to play or even talk much. It doesn’t mean that the parent is mad or doesn’t love the child. Gentle cuddling, hugging, or holding hands may be possible.

Any questions the child asks should be answered as honestly as possible, in words that the child can understand. As the child gets older, he or she will 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 maintain the baby’s or child’s routine.
  • Record lullabies, stories, and messages for when the parent will not be there.
  • Cuddle and hug often.
  • Arrange visits to the ill parent while in hospital for cuddling and comfort.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012