Sharing the news with children.
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
One of the most difficult and intense challenges a parent faces is when he/she has to inform their children about the illness or passing of the other parent. It is that moment you are trying to avoid at all costs. You will want to postpone the sit-down, your palms will be sweating, your heart rate increasing, you can feel your heart pounding in your chest, but you will have to let go. You will have to push your own feelings aside; the uncomfortable increased stress will need to be pushed aside for honesty, openness, straight forward, and uncomplicated communication with your children. Only through openness and clear communication with the children can you assist them properly in dealing with the devastating news of a terminal illness or the passing of their parent. No matter what age, no matter what circumstances, no matter how or what, open communication is the only way you can truly help and allow your children to process the information and start the healing process of dealing with the devastating news.
What NOT to do.
Some parents will try to protect their kids from harmful information by trying to make it sound better that it really is. "Mama is just really sick in her lungs, but she will be fine soon" or "Daddy is not feeling well and will have to stay in the hospital for a little longer, but he will be better soon". Although parents are trying to protect their children from harmful and painful information, in the long run it will harm the children more by not being honest and having an open discussion, while also allowing the children time to ask questions.
Although challenging and difficult, a straightforward approach in the case of a terminal illness or passing, is of utmost importance. Allow the child to cry, be scared, but more importantly- allow them to ask questions and to start the grieving and healing process.
My personal experience
When Becky was initially admitted to the hospital, we were not sure yet what the actual cause was of her symptoms. Although the initial Xray and CT-scan were concerning, cancer can not be diagnosed without an actual biopsy. So, initially I told the boys that mama was in the hospital and that they were trying to figure out what was going on with her. That all we knew for now was that she had some lung problems but we were not sure what it was (even though I had my suspicions that it was cancer). On Friday morning during the early morning rounds, the pulmonologist came in to discuss the biopsy reports. His news was devastating. The biopsy results confirmed the diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer.
As a husband and father, I took it upon myself to tell the boys the news even before Becky was released from the hospital that afternoon. After spending the whole morning with Becky and trying to make sense of it all, I went to pick up the boys from school. As they came into the car, I tried to act as I normally would and tried to be as upbeat as always. I asked about their day and they told me all about it while we were driving home. Once we got home, we walked into the house and the boys ran to their rooms to put down their school backpacks. My hands were clamp and sweaty, I could feel my heartbeat in my throat as I told the boys "Hey guys come here for a sec. I have to talk to you for a little bit". They walked into the living room loudly and playfully. I was sitting in my chair and as I looked at them I asked "Come sit here with me. I have to talk to you for a second". They both planted their booties on the ottoman right in front of me. As I looked at them I did not try to wonder how they would react, if they would understand, if they would cry or be upset, all I knew was that I had to tell them. I started with "Well the good news is that mama is getting home later this afternoon. I am going to pick her up in a little and Lisa will come over to stay with you guys, ok?" They both were excited, she had been in the hospital since Tuesday and now it was Friday. "But there is also some bad news I have to tell you ..." Instantly they turned silent and they both looked at me with their big eyes and I knew that they were paying attention to what I was about to say. I had no clue how to say it, how to package it so it would less hurt, to bring the news softly - there was no good way to tell them this. "... Mama has lung cancer ..."
Connor's eyes sprung wide-open and his look at me was devastatingly painful - he knew how bad this was. Dane stared at me as if he was not there, as if he didn't hear those words, as if he was a statue.
Connor's first reaction was "... but, but people die from cancer ..." Dane continued to be silent and it was the kind of silence that is deafening.
I did not know how to package it nicely and decided to just tell them. I realized that it was harsh and shockingly painful, but there was no easy way of telling this gently.
Now, 6 years later, I am happy I did take that step to be honest and open with the boys, to tell them the truth - although painful and difficult to process for them, and even harder for me to say. This particular conversation resulted in a very open and honest relationship and the boys always knew what was going on with mama- good news, bad news, they knew I was honest with them and that I always continued to tell them everything.
Tell your children, as soon as possible. I know it is difficult, I know it is hard. I know you will cry, I know you children will cry. They will have questions, might be mad, might be upset, they might turn silent, or be extra loud. Remember that everyone process bad news differently. When Becky was admitted to hospice during the last week of her life here on earth, I could be open with the boys and explain to them honestly what would happend. They did not like the news, but they were aware and they were prepared. Be open and honest and continue to keep that communication line open with them. In the long run they will thank you for it and you will be a better parent by your continued honesty and openness.