This excerpt is taken from "How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness," published by St. Martin's Press.

The sight of a seriously ill parent in a hospital critical-care unit is frightening. All the masks are gone, even those minimal little cosmetic aids with which we face our loved ones daily--a shave, combed hair, dentures. What remains is a pallid husk, hooked up to a terrifying array of catheters, drips, and monitors. How can we even think of inflicting such a sight on a child?

The answer is, your child is entitled. The more menacing the situation, the more important for your child's future well-being that he have this opportunity--perhaps this final opportunity--to visit if he wants to. That's still Dad or Mom on the other end of all that hardware, and most children are going to want to go. (Some won't, and that's OK. It's a decision best left to the child.) And I can assure you, most children who want to visit can handle the visit just fine--we simply have to prepare for it.

Dress Rehearsal

Sit down with your children in advance. Explain exactly what Mom or Dad looks like today; you might even sketch that there's an I.V. drip here because Mom or Dad can't eat yet, a huge bandage covering where the doctors went in to take out the tumor, a breathing tube in the mouth. Let your children know just what they're going to see before they walk in on it.

If the parent is really sick, taking a Polaroid photograph to show the children can be a terrific help--just be sure that the hospital staff says it's OK and won't compromise the parent's medical situation. Go over the picture with the children, explaining exactly what's going on and what each piece of equipment is for.

Keep in mind: The older the child, the more preparation he or she may need before going to see a parent whose appearance is dramatically altered. "Mom really looks different now because of the surgery. Just remember that she's still Mom, and she still loves you. Everything else is just the surface."

Preparing for the Emotions

It's important to prepare children, not just for what they'll see, but for what they'll feel when they visit a parent in intensive care--especially a parent whom they haven't seen for a while. What they'll see may make them feel frightened, may make them feel like crying. And all those feelings are OK.

A parent whose appearance is seriously altered, and particularly one who can't respond, may trigger an overwhelming wave of fear or grief even in a child who's been well prepared. So part of that preparation should be:

"Now, when you see Mom, it may be hard for you to handle. You may just want to cry, you may want to leave the room. However you feel, that's OK, sweetie. Don't be afraid, don't be ashamed. If you want to cry, I'm here to hold you. If you want to leave the room for a while, that's what we'll do. Mom will understand; I'll understand.

(And you want to be sure that the sick parent does understand. Warning her how her child may react is a crucial part of preparing for the child's visit.)

If, after this kind of preparation, your child decides that, well, maybe I don't want to do this right now, that's fine. But if, as is more likely, she still wants to visit Mom, then you've done it right--you've given her the preparation she'll need.

The Visit Itself

In planning the visit itself, keep three points in mind:

1. It should be the child's visit, planned around him or her. If you, Mom, want to get and give the comfort of just holding your husband's hand silently for half an hour, do that another time. Don't plan on leaving the room to talk with a doctor or a nurse or a social worker. Your child's visit is for your child. You're there for support.

2. Plan the specifics of the visit--and make sure in advance that what you want for the children is okay with the medical staff. That may mean conferring with the doctor; more often, you'll talk to the head nurse, who is in continuous contact with the patient and sympathetic to family needs.

[But, even after you have made your plan and reviewed it fully with your children,] don't go into the unit with any specific expectations. It's all right for the children to kiss the sick parent, but it's also all right for them to decide not to. You make the suggestions; let them decide.

3. Plan a brief visit--and, odd as it may seem, the older the child, the shorter the visit. Very young children, who don't fully understand what's going on, will be fine playing with their toys for a while around the foot of Dad's bed. But once the older child has had his visit with Daddy, his imagination will begin to wander--that array of tubes and beeping monitors is going to start overwhelming him, terrifying him with the menace of the unknown.

So, plan to fill the time and then leave; don't give your kids empty minutes to start imagining bad things.

This article was excerpted with permission of the authors from "How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness," published by St. Martin's Press. Copyright 1996, Ron Bonn & Kathleen McCue.

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