What Do We Tell the Kids?

How much should young children be told about a parent's serious illness?



Q: My wife is struggling with breast cancer, and the doctors are not encouraging. We are hoping for the best but know that she could die in a matter of months. Meanwhile, we have a son, 3, and a daughter, 7, who haven't been told how serious this is. What do we tell them? We hesitate to break such terrible news if it isn't necessary, but we worry about not telling them if it is.

A:

I hope that your wife will recover, but it is important that your children know that your wife's illness is serious and could get worse. The death of a parent is a terrible loss for a child, but being prepared in advance is far better than getting such dire news out of the blue. Telling them now that their mother is very, very sick will enable your kids to make the most of the time that is left and, if she dies, give them the all-important chance to say goodbye.

Consider for a moment what would happen if you did not tell them. Would they be totally in the dark, or would they pick up unintended signals that something was wrong? Children observe a lot more than adults realize--changes in the family routine, in meals, in visits from strangers, in hushed conversations, in trips to the doctor's office or hospital, and most especially in their parents' demeanor. They don't miss much, but without accurate information they may come to the wrong conclusions. If your wife spends time in the hospital, your little boy might think that she is staying away because she doesn't love him anymore. Or your daughter might think that her mother's mysterious illness is contagious--worse yet, that it was brought on by something bad the daughter did. It is amazing what powers children imagine they have.

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Some people think that age 3 is too young to expose children to the realities of illness and death. This is not true. For several years I have conducted a group for pre-school children grieving the death of loved ones, and I have been impressed by their grasp of what has happened and their ability to articulate it. Your 3-year-old undoubtedly has some of the same ability to understand what is happening if given the essential information, and he will definitely benefit from an early warning should your wife die.

I suggest that, if possible, you and your wife together have a family meeting with your children. One of you might hold your son on your lap while the other one hugs or holds the hand of your daughter. Your wife could begin by telling them that the doctors say she is very sick and might not get better. You could add that the doctors are doing everything they can to make her well again, but that they are worried, too.

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Helen Fitzgerald
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