Will this experience affect my child’s happiness and ability to enjoy life in the future?

Parents often worry that their death will destroy their children’s ability to enjoy life. Health care experts who have worked with many families dealing with cancer say that this is rarely the case. In fact, children can and do go on to live normal lives after going through a parent’s cancer and loss when the parent dies. This may be hard to believe, but most children, with the help of loved ones and others, learn to be happy again and enjoy their lives. It may give you strength to know that you can affect how your children feel about your illness and how well they’re able to move beyond it in the months and years to come.

Remember that your living with and dying from cancer is only one part of your child’s life. Unless your children are very young, there have probably been many years in which you weren’t sick. If your children are very young, the memories of your illness will fade. Having a parent with cancer is only one part of your child’s development and does not, by itself, lead to lasting damage in adulthood. The essence of parenting is to love your children and help them feel secure. You can continue to do this in spite of the stresses that cancer may cause you and your family.

Why would a child feel they caused a parent’s death?

Children often feel responsible for whatever happens in their lives. This is called magical thinking and while it’s not logical, it is, in fact, a big difference between how adults and children think. Children see themselves as the center of the world. They’re often unable to see beyond themselves. Because of this, children often have a harder time than adults trying to understand why things happen.

Sometimes children can’t ask why things happen. They may not even be aware that they blame themselves for their parent’s cancer and that the parent might not survive. Even if they do wonder about this, it’s very scary to ask, “Did I make Mommy sick?” For this reason, we suggest that parents bring up the subject themselves. Try saying something like “...and the doctors have told us it’s nobody’s fault that Mom/Dad has cancer.” That way, if the child is worried and can’t bring themselves to ask this question, it gets addressed. But it may need to be repeated more than once. After a child has made up their mind that something is true, it can be very hard to change it.

Think about some of the things you’ve heard your children say when they’ve been upset or angry. For instance, “I hate you,” “I wish you were dead,” “I wish I had a different Mommy,” “I don’t love you anymore!” and so on. When mad, children make statements that express how they feel in that moment. But, they don’t really mean what they say. Once spoken, these words are usually quickly forgotten when they calm down. But when a parent gets sick, a child might remember saying things like this. And it may cause the child to wonder if they caused the parent’s illness. The younger a child is, the more trouble they have separating what’s going on in their minds and hearts from what’s actually going on in their day-to-day lives. For this reason, parents need to think ahead about such thoughts and address them. If you wait for your child to ask you if something they said or did is causing bad things to happen, it may never come up. It’s just too scary for them to ask, “Did that day I told you I hated you make you get cancer?” or worse yet, “...make you leave me?”

It’s very painful to think that what’s happening to you will upset your children. Parents want to spare their kids from pain, but that’s not always possible. Life can be unfair and it seems especially wrong that you won’t be there to see your children safely into adulthood. The best you can do is give them whatever tools they’ll need to succeed, and lay a firm foundation that will see them through life. You may have trouble believing that your children will one day be OK. But research has shown that children can and do cope with the loss of significant relationships in healthy ways if they’re loved and supported by those close to them.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 14, 2015 Last Revised: March 20, 2015

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