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

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Are there differences in issues depending on whether the sick parent is a mother, father, or other caregiver?

The answer to this is yes. Mothers and fathers have different roles in each family. Mothers are usually intimately involved in the life of babies and young children and often give most of the physical care. Fathers may be less involved in the day-to-day physical care of young children, but this varies. In many families today, the main caregivers are aunts, uncles, grandparents, step-parents or other adults who may not be related by blood. These caregivers are part of this discussion, too, and are meant to be included when the term “parent” is used. Such roles are much less rigidly defined than they once were, so a parent’s actual role in the child’s day-to-day life must be considered.

Parents may share in taking care of the physical needs of a child, especially in a 2-parent household where both parents work. If this is the case, it may be easier to plan for how the absence of one parent will affect the child. But no matter the parent’s role, the child will feel the loss of that parent.

Depending on the child’s age, other people can take over his or her everyday care needs. With babies or very young children, this substitution may seem to have very little impact as long as the child’s needs for physical nurturing are met. In general, the more stable and permanent the substitute relationship is, the better it will probably be for the child. For instance, many family members may pitch in to help the remaining parent and children. Once the crisis of the parent’s death has become less demanding, it’s best to try to bring as much permanence to the child’s life as possible. This can be done by having the same caretakers or the same day-care situation to bring some stability back into the child’s life.

Other issues can be somewhat more complex. The sex of the parent who has died affects the remaining child or children’s development. Questions such as “Is it harder for girls to lose their mothers or boys to lose their fathers?” are hard to answer. So much depends on the quality of the substitute parenting, the age of the child when the parent dies, the child’s relationship with the remaining parent, the child’s personality, stage of development, and their general coping skills.

Children form their self-image in part by identifying with the parent of the same sex. They develop successful love relationships by identifying with the parent of the opposite sex. So children may look to other relationships in the family for substitute parents with whom to identify. A favorite aunt or uncle may be able to step in and be a role model. Community agencies like Big Brothers or Big Sisters may also provide relationships for children who have lost a parent.


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