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 impacts how a child gradually comes to understand a parent’s death. 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. It’s natural to want to assume that all relationships between parents and children are good ones, but the truth is that human relationships are made of both positives and negatives. Most parents do the best they can to nurture and love their children, but most relationships are complex.

Children who have a troubled relationship with a sick parent may have a harder time dealing with the loss because of unresolved issues. While parents love all of their children, some children present unique challenges. There are children who have trouble controlling their anger; they may fight more than their siblings, or require more patience and understanding than another child. The loss of a parent will affect every child in a family differently. Parents 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 since it may add to the child’s fears of abandonment. Keep as many things the same for the children as you can. 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’s physical needs if possible, rather than sending the child to them. This should help the child not to 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 are not close to try to get them to express how they feel. 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: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012