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

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When death is near, should children be involved in the actual event?

The answer to this question depends on the age of the child. Given the fact that cancer is often an illness which can last many months or years, children will have been around for much of their parent’s experience. Hopefully, the child will have been kept well informed all along and will understand that their mom or dad is nearing the end of life.

When a parent becomes sicker, there is a natural tendency to protect the child from the signs of advanced disease. Parents don’t want their child to see them vomiting, in pain, or not able to eat. They don’t want the kids to realize their mom or dad is too sick to pay much attention to them. But it’s impossible to protect them from everything, least of all from the fact that their parent is more tired, has less patience with them, looks sicker, and is less able to get around.

Shielding children from these realities may slow down their adjustment to the reality of the situation. So use these symptoms as a way to help children understand that the parent is getting closer to the end of life. Other friends or family members may be able to help young children and the sick parent spend as much quality time together as the parent can physically manage.

Young children do not need to be present when a parent actually dies, but it’s important for them to stay in their own home where they feel the most secure. It may be tempting to have a child stay with another relative during this time, but that can create other problems for the child. Children who have had this experience often resent it. Some of those children said, after they were older, that it made them feel excluded from their family. They felt that their relationship with their parent was not considered important. Some said that it seemed like the family assumed that they could not cope with such a scary and terrible thing as death, so they were sent away.

If a parent is in the hospital, children should be allowed as much contact with the parent as possible. The same applies to a parent who is dying at home. Keep in mind that younger children may need coaching and planned activities to enjoy their visits more. Studies have found that children recalled feeling anxious, uncertain, or disappointed when they spent time with a sick parent. The child often found these memories painful after the parent’s death. It’s important that the child be prepared for what to expect on these visits. They should have things to do and not be expected to sit quietly at the bedside. Most parents enjoy watching or hearing their kids play and have fun, even when they can’t take part themselves.

Children should also be encouraged to keep taking part in whatever activities they enjoy normally. Young children cannot be expected to keep a vigil at their parent’s bedside, as noted above.

Young children (under the age of 6 or 7) enjoy a physical relationship with their parent. They enjoy being cuddled, played with, and being cared for to whatever extent their sick parent can do these things. It’s important to continue that as long as possible, not only for the sake of the sick parent but also for the child.

If the child is older than 7, adults should follow the child’s cues about how much time they want to spend with a dying parent. If a parent is at home, give a child regular activities that they can take part in with their sick parent, such as playing a favorite game that the patient can easily manage (such as a board game), or helping with homework if possible. Some children enjoy reading to their parent or cuddling and watching TV together. These brief periods of time will be sweet memories for the child in the future. Those feelings of closeness will be important when the parent is no longer physically there to comfort the child.

Teens are able to spend more time with a sick parent and may help with some of the care. Their comfort level in doing so will depend on their relationship with the parent, school demands, and their social needs. Since teens are in a phase of their lives when they are naturally separating from their parents, finding the right balance between time spent with a sick parent and time spent on other aspects of their lives can seem challenging.

Teens can do household chores, and it’s natural to depend on them to pitch in during a crisis. In fact, teenagers get satisfaction from being trusted enough to help out when the family is in upheaval. It’s important to ensure the teen is still able to have time with friends, take part in school activities, and have parts of their lives separate from the family. Teens are affected by interactions with their peer group and by activities in the community. It’s good to check in every now and then with teenagers to see if the balance between home and the rest of their lives is being maintained.

A teenager might want to be there when a parent is dying. If the patient is OK with that, it should be supported. Some conflicting feelings are normal since there is fear and uncertainty involved. It might be useful to ask someone from the medical team to describe what is most likely going to happen. (You can also find more information in Nearing the End of Life. You can read it on our Web site, www.cancer.org, or call us and ask for a copy to be sent to you.) If a child wants to be with his or her dying parent, they should not be alone. The other parent or a close family member should be there, too. If children do not want to be involved in the death of their parent, that wish should also be respected.


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