What to Tell the Children

The diagnosis has just come in. Grandma is dying from cancer and may have only three months to live. You are stunned and trying to cope with a flood of emotions. You have three young children ages 4, 7 and 10. Should you tell them? When? And what? How can you deal with their emotions when you can't deal with your own right now?

It is my firm belief that children need to be told about important things happening in their lives, but they don't have to be told instantly. You may need a little time for this horrendous news to sink into your own head and to plan how you will tell your children. But don't wait too long, because your children will be picking up signals from you: your tone of voice, hushed telephone calls, your red eyes from crying, your lack of patience, or the absence of your smile--all sorts of cues will tell them something is wrong. Without some information, they will be left to their imaginations and fantasies, creating unnecessary anxieties.

Children want and need to be involved in whatever is going on.


When you're ready, I suggest you gather them all together and tell them that Grandma is very sick and they may see you upset because you are so worried about her. It is important that you talk to all your children together so each knows what the others know. You may hesitate about telling your youngest child, feeling he is too young, but even the youngest needs to know what's going on in the family. And if you tell only the older two children, think about how burdensome this "secret" will be for them to carry.

Of course, the first question out of their mouths will be, "Will Grandma die?" Your answer needs to be, "The doctors are doing everything they can think of, but she is very, very sick." That's enough for now. As the disease progresses, you can give them more information. At this point, have your children write letters, draw pictures, or make cassette recordings that can be taken to Grandma to make her feel better.

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Helen Fitzgerald
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