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

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What other factors influence how a child understands a parent’s death?

Age is not the only thing that affects how a child comes to understand a parent’s death over time. The child’s relationship with the parent who died, their relationship with the other parent, and the presence of other supportive people affect how a child will come to terms with this difficult loss.

If the child’s relationship with the deceased parent was a good one, it will be easier for them to resolve the loss. Children who have a troubled relationship with a parent may have a harder time dealing with their loss because of unresolved issues. But the loss of a parent will affect every child in a family differently. Parents and loved ones will have to consider those differences when trying to meet each child’s needs.

A child’s relationship with the surviving parent or caregiver is key to the child’s continued growth. The remaining parent may feel overwhelmed with their own feelings in addition to the grief of their children. There may be little energy left to focus on the children’s needs, especially if the spouse had a long illness.

Sometimes relatives offer to take care of the children in the period right after a parent has died. Although this offer can be tempting to a grieving spouse, it’s usually not a good idea for the child because it may add to the child’s fears of abandonment. The child needs to see the surviving parent’s expressions of grief as a model for how to grieve. Try to keep as many things the same for the child as you can. For instance, for very young children who have lost their mother, it’s better to have someone come to the home to take care of the child if possible, rather than sending the child to them. This should help the child not feel abandoned. Children also worry that something bad may happen to their other parent, so it’s best to keep children in the place they feel most secure.

Other family members or close friends can help cushion the loss for the child. Children look to the remaining parent or caregiver and to other close family members to try to make sense out of what has happened. The people who are closest to the child should try to attend to the child’s powerful emotions. Children may feel resentful if well-meaning people they aren’t close to try to get them to express how they feel. While the grief of a child is very painful to adults who are watching and trying to imagine what the child is feeling, children are more likely to open up with people they trust – people who have been part of their lives all along.

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