Terminal Parents: What to Leave Behind for Your Children?

+ CV Skinlabs Team

Professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University Randy Pausch, who died of pancreatic cancer July 25, 2008, first wrote his bestselling book, The Last Lecture, as a how-to manual for his three children. He also went on to create videos for each of them, in the hopes of passing on some of his wisdom and love, though the oldest was only five years old when Randy died.

“I hope they will remember me as the man who loved them,” he said, “and did everything he could for them.”

If you have terminal cancer and you have children, you may be wondering how best to help them handle your absence. Most experts recommend that you be truthful. Tell them you’re seriously ill, the name of your disease, and your best understanding of what may happen. Studies show that even very young children understand on some level the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis, so it’s best to address their fears head-on rather than try to avoid them. It’s okay to hope, and to let them hope, and especially important to assure them that none of it is their fault. It’s critical to spend time with them, doing things you love to do together, such as take a bike ride, a walk in the park, a trip to the zoo, or just playing a board game.

But then, what happens after you’re gone? How can you help them then? Many parents find it comforting to write their children letters. A letter is a tangible thing your child can hold in her hands for years to come. In the letter, you can express your values, your reflections on life, and your hopes for her future. You can provide assurances that you will always love her, and remind her of your confidence in her strength and inner power. Don’t get too wrapped up in writing the perfect letter, however. The more you can be yourself the better, as that will serve as the best reminder of your presence. Simply write as you would talk to your child, and remember that anything from you will serve as a treasured keepsake.

If you feel uncomfortable writing, you can accomplish the same goal through a video recording, or even a tape recording of just your voice. These “living” reminders of you are very comforting to children after you have left, as they help them remember your face, the sound of your voice, and your natural movements of expression. For young children, you may even want to record you singing a lullaby or reading a bedtime story.

Some parents find it healing to create a photo album of their lives to pass on to their children. You can sort through old photos, paste them into a scrapbook, and add handwritten captions that express your thoughts. You may even want to include old ticket stubs, menus from special dinners, personal notes, and more. This might even be something you could do together with your child, so he will remember the time you spent together on it when he’s looking through it after you’re gone.

Other ideas you may want to try:

  • Write a poem for your children where you express your love for them.
  • Write a song and record it on video.
  • Paint or draw a picture of how you will be watching over them.
  • Work together with your children to create a quilt that contains all your love.
  • Gather several of your most prized possessions, and arrange them into a shadow box that can be hung on the wall.

If you’re facing this difficult situation, remember that children are stronger than we think they are, and that you have given them a great gift with your love and devotion during your time here. Create as many memories as you can, and know that the things you leave behind-especially those created with care and love specifically for your children-will help them to keep you in their hearts and minds, and to draw on the strength of your love for years to come.

A few resources that may help:

  • When a Parent Has Cancer by Wendy S. Harpham, MD
  • Helping Children when a Family Member Has Cancer: American Cancer Society
  • When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens (National Cancer Institute)
  • Books for Children Whose Parent Has Cancer (Revolution Health)
  • Recommended Reading for Parents and Grandparents with Cancer (Revolution Health)

Are you facing the difficult task of preparing your children for your absence? Please share your story.

Photo courtesy nadiadaneels via

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