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

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Children age 6 to 8

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Children age 9 to 12

Children this age may have feelings of sadness and loss during terminal illness and after a parent’s death. They may even feel embarrassed about their outbursts of strong emotions. They are able to understand more about serious illness and the finality of death, as long as they are given clear information all along. This doesn’t mean that the child won’t fantasize about Mom or Dad coming back from death – this is normal. But if given simple explanations about death, they will, with time, understand that the parent will not come back from death and that death is permanent. They’ll also understand that all living things die.

The child will need concrete, basic information about the parent’s illness and treatment to understand what’s going on. Understanding comes slowly, over time, when the truth has a chance to sink in and the child can more easily tolerate the loss.

  • Tell the child as much detail as possible about the cancer and what to expect and what the parent may be feeling (for example, weaker, have trouble eating, or sleep a lot). If possible, use pictures from children’s books about cancer, and for older children, science books about the human body. Explain what the child sees. Answer questions honestly.
  • Assure children the illness is not their fault.
  • Let the child spend as much time with the parent as possible. Suggest topics to talk about. If the parent is in a hospital or inpatient hospice, it’s helpful if children this age meet medical and nursing staff, and explore the facility a bit.
  • Keep the child up-to-date on how the parent looks.
  • Help the child stay involved in after-school activities, sports, and keep him or her in contact with friends. Remind the child that it’s OK to have fun.
  • Tell the child’s teachers, coaches, and other school staff about the family situation.
  • Let the child help if they are interested in helping with the parent’s care, but keep in mind that the child cannot be in charge of the parent’s care.
  • Assure the child that it’s OK to be upset, sad, anxious, or angry and that their parent still loves and cares for them.
  • Encourage expressing and talking about feelings, but allow the child to keep their feelings private if that’s what they prefer.
  • Encourage the child’s interest in reading or writing about cancer or its treatment and their responses to the parent’s illness (if they want to do this).
  • Arrange for one family member or trusted friend to take a special interest in the child.

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