You Have Terminal Cancer: How Do You Tell Your Child?

+ CV Skinlabs Team

How do you do it? How can you ever tell your child that you may not always be there for him or her?

If you’re facing terminal cancer, you already have a lot on your mind. You have to deal with your own emotions on the issue, and make preparations for your family.

But when it comes to children, the choices are so much more difficult. We want to protect them from pain, and so many times, we may think that hiding the truth is best. However, according to Lisa Barkely, clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the United Kingdom, children tend to sense the truth anyway, and hiding it from them can increase their fear.

“Children who are kept in the picture tend to have a more positive recovery,” she says. “First, ask your child questions to find out what they know about the situation already. They may have overheard you talking and already had ‘fantasies’ about what is happening and feel confused or worried.”

The American Cancer Society (ACS) agrees. “Children should be told of a parent’s terminal illness so they can prepare themselves for what will happen next. The pain of losing you is likely to be worse if they are not prepared.”

Barkely goes on to say that it’s best to use words like “death” and “dying” as opposed to “going to sleep,” as those types of statements can confuse the child. After all, if you said you were going to sleep and then you never come back, the child may fear the same will happen to him when he goes to sleep, and grow to fear going to bed at night.

“Don’t tell a child what you think he or she wants to hear,” Barkely says. “It’s not helpful to say that everything is going to be ok when you know it isn’t.”

As difficult as this can be, what may help you is the thought that what you do and say now, while you’re still here, can help your child better deal with life after you’re gone. And be assured-most children who lose parents to cancer do go on to life happy, productive lives. “Having a parent with cancer is only one part of your child’s development,” says the American Cancer Society (ACS), “and does not, by itself, lead to lasting damage to them as adults.”

Mastering your own emotions before your talk to your child is important. Come to terms with your own fear, anger, and sadness, and you’ll be better able to help those who depend on you. Then, wait until you’re sure that your death is imminent, within the next few weeks. Children experience time differently than adults, and if you tell them too soon, they could have difficulty managing a long stretch of time in between. However, realize that there will never be a “perfect time” to break the news.

The ACS recommends that you think of how you prepared your child for her first day of school. You talked about all the fun things she would learn, how she would make new friends, and how going to school was a normal part of growing up. Draw on the same skills to prepare her for your passing-tell her how death is a natural part of life, and how she will go on to learn new things, make new friends, and grow up to be a wonderful person. Be as honest as you can, while considering the age of the child. Listen to discover the child’s fears and worries, and address them as best you can. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), two of the most common questions are, “What’s going to happen to Mommy?” and “Who will take care of me?”, so prepare for these. Above all, reassure the child that he will be taken care of, and that you will always love him.

“Saying good-bye,” says Grace H. Christ et al. in a 2006 study, “seemed not as important as a final hug, squeeze of the arm, and repeated affirmation of love.” According to the study, a 7-year old who lost her mother was comforted by remembering that, even though her mother could not talk anymore, she had squeezed her hand. For months, she put herself to sleep with this tactile memory.

Have you had an experience with children and terminal cancer? Please share your story.

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