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

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What if I am the only parent and have a terminal illness?

As any single parent can tell you, there are unique challenges and joys in being the only parent. As one single parent said, “You have all the joys and all of the heartache.” Having cancer as a single parent is challenging, but to realize that you are terminally ill with cancer as a single parent brings a new definition to the word “heartache.”

For single parents, the major issue is choosing the best caregiver for your child or children. You cannot start this process too early in the illness, and you may have already begun to talk to friends and family about the best option for your dependent children.

For many, family members may not be an option. You may need a network of people who will help care for your child or children after you are gone. Think carefully about your children’s needs. Your children will need a home. But they will also need emotional support, adults who can just hang out with them, people who can and will share stories about you and who you were as a person. Cast a wide net when you think about who you want to surround your children with. Who will provide the most love and care? 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 will stay involved with your children. People who love you will want to be with your children and support them.

Make your wishes known in your will, so everyone clearly understands what you want. Be sure that all the legal bases are covered, especially if the other parent is still alive. Then, depending on your child’s age (certainly by school age), discuss your wishes with your child. For pre-school children, you and the new family caregiver can talk together with them and prepare them for their new home as the time approaches. Prepare them for what will happen once you are gone. Explain to them what you have decided would be best for them and why. Your children will feel safe knowing that you have made the best plan you could ahead of time. You faced this issue head-on, not because you wanted to leave – you would do anything to stay if you could – but because you love them so much, you want to make sure they are in the best place possible. Cry together about not being able to stay, but assure them that they will be well cared for and you know they have the strength to face what will come.

You may also leave instructions that you want your kids 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 are gone. As a single parent, know that you have done the best you can do, have fought as hard as you can fight, and have faced this final battle with courage and good judgment.

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