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

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How do I explain to a young child that their parent is dying?

The first thing children need to understand is there has been a change in their parent’s response to treatment. Children who have been told that the treatments are supposed to control or get rid of the cancer need to be introduced to the fact that this is no longer happening.

It helps parents if they can get an idea of how their kids think things are going. An open-ended question like “How do you think Mom or Dad is doing now?” is a good way to start. Often children sense that the situation is becoming more serious just by the way their parent is acting, by the way they look, or by how much or little they are able to take part in normal family activities. This usually is a gradual process in which Dad can no longer play ball with them, relatives or friends are helping out more, or Mom can no longer take part in parent-child activities at school. Family life seems to revolve around trips to the hospital and there is less time for the family to enjoy their usual routine. So children should be asked, “How do you think Mom (or Dad) is doing?” Find out what the child thinks these changes in their parent and in their family life mean.

Parents should explain that the treatment is no longer working. The doctors have said that they have tried their best medicine or treatment, but the cancer is not going away. During a talk like this, ask children to tell you what they think this means. Have they worried that their parent might die? What do they think of all of the changes that have gone on in the family lately? Most children sense that things are worse, but they are often too scared to talk about what they fear the most.

You can tell your children that what everyone hoped for is no longer possible—the cancer is still there and it’s growing and spreading—and this means that the parent will probably not live much longer. Sometimes people die from cancer in spite of the treatment, and it looks like this is going to happen to the parent.

Despite the temptation to avoid them, it’s important to use the words “die” and “death” rather than “pass on,” “go away,” “go home,” “go to sleep,” or other terms that make death sound nicer. Children often don’t understand what these nicer-sounding words really mean and may not fully understand what you are trying so hard to say.

Depending on their age and many other factors, some children may not be able to really grasp that a parent is dying, and their first reaction is often one of disbelief. This is a normal reaction, often shared by the patient is who is thinking, “How can this be happening to me?” A child’s response may be anger, and sometimes he or she is angry with the parent who is sick. This is normal, too.

All children depend on their parents to provide security and love and to make sense of life. Children have fears about being abandoned by the people they depend on the most to keep them safe. Since young children are rarely able to talk about these feelings, it’s up to the person telling them this news to also tell them about changes the family has thought about and the plans that have been made to keep the child’s world as safe as possible. The immediate and most pressing issue is “Who will take care of me?” Parents need to tell their children what arrangements have been made to provide the care and security the sick parent can no longer provide.

Since children’s understanding of something is based on what they can directly experience, death should be explained in terms such as these.

    • Death means that we will no longer see the person we love except in our hearts and minds.

    • Death means the person will no longer be physically there in our lives.

    • They will no longer be with us as they were before, but we will still have memories of them.

Young children will probably not be able to understand the full meaning of this the first time they hear it. It may be important to repeat this discussion many times for them to fully understand. If children do not want to believe what’s being said to them, they may ask the same questions over and over again as if the conversation had never happened. They do this hoping that the answer may be different the next time, hoping that somehow what they are being told is not true. Although this is painful for the adult, in time the child will be able to accept the reality. This process is how the child gradually accepts the painful truth that life will go on without the parent.


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