Dear Mama Drama:
I have two children ages 3 and 5. We have a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer and her prognosis does not look good at this point. I’m not sure how to tell my children about this or even if I should tell them. I also don’t know how much to tell them.
Death was not something discussed openly in my family growing up and I have always been uncomfortable talking about it. I want to change that for my children, so any ideas you have will be greatly appreciated.
~ Uncertain Mama
I am so sorry for this difficult time your family is experiencing. Making the choice to change a pattern that is challenging for you takes a lot of courage and I commend you.
Illness and death are a natural part of life, but they are not always treated that way. We often experience a lot of fear and stigma associated with talking about death and dying. Additionally, new losses in our lives always bring up feelings about our previous losses and it is often difficult to sort out the emotions that arise.
It is always important to think about what information your children can comprehend. Even though they are close in age, your five year old will have a different understanding of what you tell them than your three year old.
Your children most likely already know something is wrong as they sense your sorrow and apprehension about the situation. You can start the conversations by talking about how you have been feeling or acting and what they have noticed. Then you can tell them that your family member is ill with cancer. Be sure to tell them that cancer is not an illness you can catch from someone else, like a cold, so they are not afraid to be near the person or afraid they will get cancer. Plan to share basic information about what cancer is and if the person is undergoing treatment. You may need to discuss that the treatment often makes the person feel sick.
You can choose to tell them their loved one may die or wait for a later conversation to share that. When speaking to your children about death, be sure to use the language of “dying or passing away” and not to say their loved one will “go to sleep” as this can create a great deal of unnecessary fear for children.
If your children have questions you cannot answer, acknowledge that and be honest that you don’t know those answers.
Using books is a good way to talk about the variety of emotions they may experience over the time of the illness and death. Some lovely options are Gentle Willow, Tear Soup, and Everett Anderson’s Goodbye. You may need to adapt the language to meet the developmental levels of your children. Whichever book you choose, read it thoroughly yourself before reading it with your children. This helps you to be familiar with the book, anticipate your own reactions, and make sure that it supports the beliefs you want to share with your children. Allow your own emotions to show as this is part of teaching your children how to grieve.
Give your children time to process what you’ve told them. They may have a strong emotional reaction or may not have much to say at all. Give them the opportunity to express their feelings without forcing. Also know that this will be an ongoing conversation and it will be important to check in with them from time to time and update them on the situation.
Young children are very kinesthetic and respond well to creative expressions of their feelings. Provide opportunities for them to draw, paint, or create to express themselves. They can even make gifts for the person who is dying which will mean a great deal to all of them.
If your children are in school or childcare discuss the situation with their teachers or care providers so they can provide the appropriate support. Since people have different views on death and dying, share your family’s perspective of the situation to avoid any confusion.
Hospice organizations are a wonderful resource for support groups and more literature and information on death and dying.