Skip to main content

Oregon Family Magazine

Truth and Compassion

10/02/2017 ● By Sandy Kauten
Learning that you, your spouse or another family member suffers from an incurable illness or a serious, possibly fatal, injury is devastating. After the initial shock, you may wonder how to break the news to your children.

“What we try and tell parents is that we can’t fix things that are heartbreaking, but we can make them easier to understand,” says Heather Kinney, CCLS, CPST, a healthcare child life specialist.

How much to tell? While it’s normal to show sadness when sharing the news with your child, take time to process the information yourself before talking to your kids. When you do go to break the news, you may wish to have another adult present for emotional support.

Kinney suggests starting the conversation with: “I have something really important that we need to talk about. Do you think you are ready to listen?”

“A good rule of thumb is to be as honest as you can while taking into consideration where the child is developmentally,” says pediatric psychologist Crista Donewar, Ph.D.

Decide whether to tell siblings together or separately. Consider their ages, personalities, the nature of the situation and what feels right to you.

Most of all, guard against trying to shield kids from information because what they’re imagining can be worse than reality,” says Allison DeLaney, chaplain and a hospice house bereavement coordinator. “What’s surprising is that kids often do better than the adults if given the chance.”

Managing questions. Some children ask many questions while others won’t ask any right away.

“Some kids don’t want to know. That’s fine too. That’s that child’s choice and way of coping, but keeping them out of the conversation without asking them is harmful,” DeLaney says.

You may find that “they dismiss the news the first time and then come back and have a few questions and need another explanation,” Donewar says. And don’t be surprised if your kids come back and ask you the same questions over again as the situation sinks in.

So what kinds of questions should you expect?

“The first thing kids want to know is ‘Are you going to die?’” Kinney says. “Kids look to to their parents to tell them the truth. If the first thing you tell them is a lie, how do they know to trust you again? We all deserve the truth about the people we love.”

Kids typically wonder how the information will affect them. For example, they might worry that “If mom dies, what if something happens to Dad? Who will take care of me?” Help lessen your child’s anxieties by explaining that your family has a plan in place to care for them no matter what.

They may also privately wonder, “Did I do something that caused this to happen?”

“Assure them that it’s not their fault,” DeLaney says.

Allow them to help. If your child wants to be involved in some way to help care for their loved one, suggest practical ideas like getting a drink of water and putting it on the bedside table, retrieving a box of kleenex or quietly drawing a picture, DeLaney says.

Seek support. Your child may need to talk to someone else about her feelings. Connect with one of her close friend’s parents or tap available community resources. If grief goes unresolved, a child, especially an adolescent, may act out through boundary-pushing and risk-taking. Clue your child’s pediatrician and school teachers in on what has happened.

Also, surround yourself with your own adult support network and resources for comfort and emotional support.

“Oversharing or relying on kids to comfort you causes them a lot of stress and additional worry,” Donewar says.

Check online for area grief support camps for kids, art therapy, support groups and mental health professionals. By providing resources to support the healing process, you and your children will feel less alone and better able to manage your stress.

For more information, check out How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue.

Legacy Building Activities

Help your child build positive memories with a dying loved one by creating legacy items.

  • Handprint of loved one that a child can decorate for a garden stone.
  • Healing Journal or Memory Journal that includes life review questions and answers.
  • Parent can write letters to children.
  • Personal storytelling that impart morals, values and life experiences.
  • Check out StoryCorps, a free downloadable app that records conversations and offers question ideas.

Christa Melnyk Hines is freelance journalist, author and mom of two boys. Her latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.