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

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How are children affected by the surviving parent’s grief?

Parents worry a great deal about how their grief will affect their children. They worry about children seeing them emotionally out of control and whether their children will be damaged forever by the intense feelings that come with losing their spouse or partner.

Children look to their parents for cues on how to react to the world and to the events that shape their lives. Seeing the raw grief of the remaining parent will not damage them as long as the child’s security needs are being met. There’s nothing wrong with crying or other expressions of intense feelings after a loved one’s death. These are a normal expression of how people feel when they lose someone important to them. Witnessing these feelings gives the child permission to express their own emotions. If the remaining family members try too hard to hide their feelings, it may be hard for the child to be open about their own feelings. Unchecked hysteria can frighten children, but genuine feelings of sadness, tears, and anger are normal reactions for all who grieve.

The grief process often starts before the actual death. People may be angry when their world is turned upside down, as it is when a loved one is dying. People may even be angry with the person who is sick, which can lead to feelings of guilt. Anger is a normal reaction to an unexpected loss. It’s expected that older adults will die someday. But it seems unfair that parents should die before their children are grown. Feelings of rage and desperation are normal, too. Parents should not feel that they must totally avoid the grieving process. It’s OK to say to their children that it makes them angry that this is happening. It also gives children permission to express their anger that Mom or Dad will no longer be there for them.

Very young children may not be able to talk about being angry, but may show it in how they act. Most of the time, parents understand how their children act when stressed. Parents should be aware that a child who is misbehaving might be doing so because there is no other way to express their anger and confusion about the loss of Mom or Dad. “Are you feeling sad or angry that this is happening?” is a good way to invite the child to tell you what’s behind their behavior. Tell them you know it hurts a lot to lose a parent and that you feel some of those same feelings. Reassure children that their parent did not want to get sick and leave them but had no control over getting cancer. This may seem obvious to the adult, but to kids, parents are often all-powerful and should be able to prevent bad things from happening. After all, parents do this all the time. They try to protect their children from things that will harm them or cause them distress.

Make sure your children know that the sick parent loves them very much and does not want to leave them. Cancer “just happens” and there’s no easy way for a child to understand why this happened to their parent. Some families find that their faith or religious beliefs help them make sense of what’s going on.

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