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

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Why should I tell my children I’m dying?

Clearly, the purpose of preparing a child for the death of a parent is to give them information and support, so they know what to expect. The pain of losing you is likely to be worse if they’re not prepared, and they may feel confused, hurt, and angry that this wasn’t shared with them. Kids rely on parents to bring order and security into their lives. Parents help them understand the world around them and their place in it.

There are also risks to not talking about death. Not preparing your child may send the message that they’re not an important part of the family. It may also give the impression that death is so terrible that they won’t be able to cope with it. Some kids even believe they weren’t told because it’s their fault that their parent died. Not preparing them leaves them alone to make sense out of this critical event in their lives.

When should children be told that a parent will die?

You may wonder when your children need to be prepared for death. Children, especially young ones, have trouble understanding that death may happen in the future. But, they can understand that the cancer is causing your body to not work well and that one day your body may stop working.

Many factors influence when a child needs to be told that a parent is probably going to die. The first depends on what the child has been told over time about the situation. Hopefully, they’ve been given truthful information from the start about the cancer and how it affects the family. Kids need to be told the truth in in small amounts over several days or even weeks, depending on how ill you are. This way they have a chance to adjust to what they can understand while still going about their everyday lives.

If you’ve now reached the point that you know you’re going to die soon, your children need to be told. Most parents would rather avoid or postpone this talk, but if you wait for the “right time” it may not happen at all.


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