When it comes to sharing the news with your children about you or another family member’s cancer diagnosis, everyone has a different opinion about what’s best. Of course, you’re the parent, so you (and your partner) get to decide how and when to share the news. I’m certainly not an expert, but I have lived through the experience of sharing the news about J’s cancer with our 3 children. At the time of J’s diagnosis, our three children were 24, 21 and 11. As you can imagine, we shared the news differently with the older children than we did with the youngest. We also took into consideration their unique personalities and our individual relationship with each one of them. Our oldest was living abroad at the time, so that also influenced how we shared news. You will, no doubt, have other considerations to take into account, but don’t let any of them keep you from being truthful in a developmentally appropriate and loving way.
Real tip #1: Don’t shield your children from the truth. Share the news, taking into account your child’s age, temperament, and other considerations, but whatever you do, trust them with the information you believe they can handle (with your help).
Is honesty really the best policy when it comes to your kids? What if they fall apart? You’ve got enough to deal with without having to devote a bunch of time to meet their needs, too. You’re busy dealing with your own emotions, not to mention keeping up with all the new tasks that have been added to your already busy schedule. Why complicate matters by telling your children about the diagnosis? After all, your hope is that you or your loved one is going to be fine in the end. Can’t you just say “Daddy isn’t feeling well.” Or, “Daddy has to take some special medicine.” Okay, well you CAN say things like that to your child if she’s a toddler, but if you’re dealing with an older child, they deserve to know more. How much more is up to you and your partner. You and your partner need to be on the same page, so discuss how you want to handle it beforehand, then make sure that you are the ones to tell your children. Don’t leave it to someone else and don’t put it off for long. Children are remarkably observant and curious creatures. Undoubtedly, no matter their age, they will have already sensed that something is amiss. Maybe you or your loved one has experienced symptoms they will have already noticed, and perhaps they will have also noticed the worry in your face, the strain in your voice, your red swollen eyes, or the string of people calling or stopping by. At this point, even bad news can be received with relief in part because of the opportunity it presents for the child to ask questions, to have answers and to realize that he is part of a bigger picture–a family, loved by his parents, with a support system in place. Being made to feel part of the team facing this obstacle can also give your child a sense of empowerment. You can build on this concept by assigning your child special tasks that can help out the family. For example, our 11 year old helped plan our weekend nature walks (ah, forestbathing!), and took on more household chores, and our 21 year old authored our CaringBridge site and communicated with our son who was abroad. Our son was also my go-to person to call when I felt the world crashing in. He’s like the upbeat friend in the All About Friends post. I knew he would let me cry and then say something funny that would make me laugh.
My husband used to sit on our 11 year old’s bed every night and ask her if she had any questions about what was going on. She usually did, and he would answer them gently, but honestly. Sometimes it was something silly like “What does your poop look like now?” and other times it was way more serious like “What’s going to happen to mommy and me if you die?” or “Are you scared?” When J was in chemo she asked more pragmatic questions such as “Did the needle hurt” or “Do you feel nauseous?” She and J discussed the doctor’s surgery and chemo plan together and decided on ways they could help positively influence J’s outcome. These included a diet, exercise and attitude. Helping Daddy with these three areas became her focus.
Real tip #2: Help your child feel part of a team. Your family is the team, and you’re all working to together to help your loved one.
Real tip #3: Don’t assume your child will be devastated. She might take the news better than you expect. She might process it slowly. She might feel a sense of relief. No matter what, she will definitely take her cues from you and your partner. So be real (yes, that can include crying) and show that it’s okay to share your feelings with each other. Feelings are not the enemy and acknowledging them leads to more open discussions and more intimacy as a family unit.
(Photo: Our youngest, age 11, the day J’s chemo port was surgically inserted. She went to the pool with her swim team friends and their mom sent me this picture. She ended up having a lovely day and was excited to tell us about it that afternoon.)
Our youngest was 11 at the time of J’s diagnosis. She let us know in no uncertain terms she didn’t want to be the last to know any piece of information. Fortunately, we had a preview for this preference a couple of years prior when our son and his girlfriend broke up. Our son decided not to tell H for a couple of weeks, so we respected his decision and did not share the information. When our daughter H found out, she was more upset about being the last in the family to know than she was about the fact that they had broken up! She was absolutely crazy about his girlfriend, but that paled in comparison to the intensity of her emotions about being left out. As a youngest child myself, I can relate! We don’t like being shielded from all the important information. No one wants to be the last to know!
We also wanted to make sure our son, who was abroad, heard the news from us and not inadvertently through social media, so we made a phone call to him as soon as we had told our girls the news in person. And sure enough, before the day was done, people were posting comments directly on J’s Facebook timeline, wishing him well and saying they were praying for him. I only realized it when I started getting texts and messages from my friends asking what was going on with J.
Real tip #4: Make sure you share the news with those closest to you as soon as possible (even if it’s through a quick text) so they don’t find out through social media.
Your child may see you cry–a lot. She may witness you relying on friends for things you would normally take care of yourself. She will be worried. It’s okay, but only if you talk openly, even through your tears, about what is happening. If you cry or feel depressed and try to hide it from your child, she will sense that something is wrong anyway. Something so bad that it can’t even be talked about. She will then fill in the holes herself, with her own version of what is going on and it may very well be worse than the actual truth. She will likely overhear bits and pieces of conversations and not know how to process what she hears. Above all else, your child needs you to talk, to trust her enough to know the truth. Oh, but my child isn’t old enough to know the truth. Not true! Your child is most definitely old enough to know the truth told in a developmentally appropriate way. How you explain a cancer diagnosis or surgical procedure to a preschooler is decidedly different from how you talk to your middle schooler or adult child about it, but they all get the truth–a developmentally appropriate version of the truth. It’s just like “the sex talk”. You don’t tell a 4 year old the same thing you tell an 11 year old when they ask how babies are made! You answer their specific questions and present it in a way they are capable of understanding. A four year old doesn’t need to know about sperms and eggs just yet, but an 11 year probably does. You’re the parent, so again, you get to decide how much information you share with your child. Sharing information freely with your child shows him you believe he can handle it. You are placing confidence in his resilience, and that in itself can be a major gift that cancer shares with your child and your family. You trust and rely on each other as a family unit. What greater message for your child can there be?