The worst thing as a parent with cancer news, is how do we tell our child? There is nothing in the 'Parenting Manual' that prepares you for this conversation and the many questions ahead of you.
We informed our son's day care centre, primary and then secondary school about what was happening. Be very honest with the teachers. We had very compassionate people support our child, which I will never forget.
Remember that children will always inadvertently tell their teachers what is happening at home or act out their frustrations in the classroom. They need people they can trust to talk about what is happening. It is always better if the teachers know how to support your wishes for your child.
THREE YEAR OLD CHILD
Our son was three at the time when my wife was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. The tumour was malignant: the bad kind of cancer we were told, (not that there is any good kind of cancer).
Your heart breaks at the thought of trying to tell a three year old that their Mum is going to be very ill. How are you going to juggle a full time job and looking after a son at the same time while their Mum has chemotherapy and radiotherapy?
So I just talked about Mum being ill. I told him was she very ill and kept reminding him all the way through her different treatments:
"Do you remember what it was like when you vomited up the carrots?" "Yes Dad. It was disgusting. I didn't like it. Made me feel yucky."
"Well Mum has that same feeling. She needs to sleep a lot too. Mum needs lots of hugs and kisses when she wakes up when she is feeling a bit better. Tell her how much you love her."
"I will. Will she smell from the vomit?"
"Yes but we still hugged you when you vomited!"
"I'll look after you until she gets better."
"O.K. Can I watch the Wiggles DVD now?"
Even at such a young age, our son accepted what we told him.
We made light of the cancer with all of the adults, when our son was not around as a 'safety valve' for our feeling and emotions which were raw. We never made light of my wife's cancer in front of any child, especially our young child.
We politely asked all of the trusted adults not to discuss cancer in front of our child too. They were all so supportive and respected our wishes.
TEN YEAR OLD CHILD
About seven years later, despite all of the awesome doctors, nurses and ancillary teams (physiotherapy etc.), clinical trials and treatment, the aggressive cancer returned. It was a really angry cancer as we used to smirk about as parents. 😉
What do you tell a ten year old now? We decided on telling him the whole truth. He was old enough to understand. (Be prepared for thousand of questions.) We answered every question and let our son know that he could ask as many questions as he needed over as many years that he needed. Also, we organised for a wonderful counsellor to be his own support network, so he could tell the counsellor anything, at any time without our conscious and unconscious biases.
We wanted our son to feel safe, loved and know that this is not what we chose or wanted for them however we can get through this together. We asked him to help us more, especially anything that would make it physically easier for their Mum. We kept it practical.
We talked about how frustrating, angry and sad it will make us all feel. Most importantly, that we will have great memories, go on great adventures and still fight and yell at each other like other families! We must tell each other always how much we love each other, every day.
We started to gently talk about Mum dying. I make that sound so easy. It was not easy. There were many tears, frustration and lots of laughter too. We gave our son permission to laugh at the cancer as well. We only laughed about it as a family when no-one else was around.
We wanted to tell our son first what was happening and how we as a family will deal with it before any other adult inadvertently told him any unsavory facts by mistake.
One of my relatives asked me why I would tell our son about such a depressing topic. I was advised not to tell my son anything about the cancer. So, I used this example with the relative, that if he was to get drunk at a party and say, "OMG. You poor thing. How are you going to cope when your Mum dies?" the relative would never forgive themselves.
Again, we politely asked all of the adults not to discuss cancer in front of our son too.
With adults that our son really trusted and respected, we told them to answer any questions our son asked them. We gave them permission because we trusted their approach which reflected our wishes.
Heading into teenage years, we needed to allow other people to support us. We could not do this on our own. As a soon to be, 'single parent', I knew that I could not do this on my own.
P.s. These people are awesome friends that still support me today and help to raise my son.
This is quite a good YouTube clip about talking about death and dying with children. It's written from the perspective of grandparents however there are some great conversations starters here.
Source: AgeUK: Also, you can download the 'Let's Talk about Dying' booklet
Paul P Winbanks:
I taught in schools for 10 years then moved into technology training, helping adults. I am a Public Speaker, Civil Marriage Celebrant and passionate Change Management practitioner assisting people to navigate the dramatic and stressful changes in their work lives.