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

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How should your child’s school be included?

It’s important that the surviving parent or caregiver speak to the child’s teacher and/or school counselor about the illness and death of the parent. The school staff can then watch your child and let you know if they notice any problems. If a child is troubled, it will often show up in the school setting, and a teacher who isn’t aware of what’s going on in the child’s life isn’t prepared to help them to cope with it.

The school can be a major help because the staff are usually aware of how a family crisis affects a child and know how to help them deal with it. A teacher or school counselor might spend some extra time with the child, especially since life at home may be so chaotic. If a child starts having trouble with grades or behavior, the teacher needs to know the reason so that the problems are understood and addressed in context.

Sometimes older children don’t want anyone outside of the family to know what’s going on. They worry about what their peers will think, so you are probaby the main person the child has to talk to. In general, children don’t like being different from their friends, and those concerns need to be heard. It’s important for you to try to get the child to talk about what they’re feeling. But try to respect their desire for privacy, too.

If your child is OK with it, the teacher may be able to help the child talk about the illness to classmates and answer other children’s questions. Maybe the teacher can help your child’s peers figure out what they might do to help their classmate get through this difficult time. It’s almost impossible to keep a serious illness a secret, and the child needs to know that this is not necessary and that people usually want to help. Also, when death occurs, a child can get a lot of comfort and support from his or her classmates, maybe through attendance at the parent’s memorial or funeral, condolence cards, or messages of concern. In this way, the child gets some of the same kind of support that the adults in the family get from their friends.

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