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

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What if I’m a single parent and have a terminal illness?

For single parents, the key issue is choosing the best caregiver for your child or children. You cannot start this process too early, and you may have already begun to talk to friends and family about the best choice for your kids. You’re looking for someone who is willing and able to care for your children. Who will provide the most love and care? For many, family members may not be an option, but it’s less scary for the kids if it’s someone they know or can get to know before you’re gone.

Make your wishes known in your will, so everyone can clearly understand what you want. Be sure that all the legal issues are covered, especially if the other parent is still alive. Then, depending on your child’s age (certainly by school age), discuss your plans with your child.

For pre-school children, you and the new family caregiver can talk together with them and prepare them for what will happen once you are gone. Explain what you’ve decided is best for them and why. It’s OK to cry together about not being able to stay, but assure them that they’ll be well cared for and you know they are strong enough to face what will come.

You may also need a network of people who will help care for your kids after you’re gone. Yes, they’ll need a home, but they’ll need extra emotional support, adults who can guide and support them, and people who can and will share stories about you and what you were like. Think carefully about your children’s needs. Cast a wide net when you think about who you want around your children. Think about friends, both male and female, that you want to stay connected to your children. Write them letters and talk with them ahead of time about how you hope they’ll stay involved with your children. People who love you are likely to want to spend time with your children and support them.

You may want to leave instructions that your kids are to get mental health therapy or be in grief support groups. This is another way to help them deal with their deep loss once you’re gone. As a single parent, know that you’ve done the best you can, have fought as hard as you can fight, and have faced this final battle courageously and with good judgment.


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