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 still have a fantasy sometimes about Mom or Dad coming back from death, but with gentle reminders they usually can accept the reality.

The child will need detailed, concrete, and complete information about the parent’s illness and its treatment to understand what’s going on. Understanding doesn’t come in one brilliant flash but slowly, over time, when the truth has a chance to sink in and the child can more easily tolerate the loss.

  • Give fairly detailed information about the parent’s diagnosis: name of the disease, specifics, symptoms, and as much as possible about what to expect. Explain what the child sees. Answer questions honestly.
  • Assure children the illness (or death) is not their fault.
  • Tell the child that the uncertainty is stressful for everyone, with reminders that the family is strong and will get through this painful time together.
  • Have the child visit the parent in the hospital. Suggest topics to discuss; explain the parent’s condition and treatment. It’s helpful if children this age meet medical and nursing staff, and explore the hospital a bit. Tell the child about any differences in how the parent looks before you go.
  • 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.
  • Inform the child’s teachers, coaches, and other school staff about the family situation.
  • Explain that it’s good if the child is interested in helping with the parent’s care, but keep in mind that the child cannot be in charge of the parent’s care.
  • Encourage children’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 each child.

It’s better for the child if he or she is prepared for the parent’s death. Afterward, the child may cry, scream, laugh, or want to be alone for a time—any of a range of emotions is possible. Or, they might want to avoid showing any strong emotions, but express their feelings in other ways such as by being messy or stubborn or arguing a lot. Kids this age may want to take active parts in the funeral, or put special items in the casket.

After the parent’s death, the child may have trouble sleeping. Some find it comforting to have clothing or other items that had belonged to the parent, especially during the first year or so after the death. Most like looking at pictures of their parent during happier times, and hearing stories about them. Routines are important, so try and get back to them quickly. Help the child get back to school and their usual activities at least by the time all the ceremonies are over.

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