Talking to Your Kids


_DSC2330Parents frequently ask us, “how do I/we talk to my/our children about my cancer diagnosis?” We found in our archives a blog post from a few years ago about one woman’s strategy and thought it might be helpful to republish her story:

“Honey, Mommy has,…”  No, too abrubpt.

“You know how I keep having to go to the doctor?  Well,…”  Too forced.

“So what would you think of __________ as your new mommy?”  Just wrong at the moment and very confusing.

For over two years, Tyler and I avoided having “the talk” with the boys because it just never seemed like the right time.  They were too young.  I was well again.  My hair actually became a style — until I lost it a second time.  As the years passed, they grew.  They heard more, were more aware.  Then finally they presented the opportunity.

Friday, February 3, 2012:  Some dear friends were watching the boys while I was having a rare pity party.  They came home after Bridesmaids and the bottle of wine, but during the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, a documentary during which two men lose gobs and gobs of weight while juicing.  Interesting.  Just after the part when the commentator emphasizes how eating healthy greatly reduces one’s chances of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the boys turned to me and stated, “Mommy, you eat healthy and exercise, but you still Imagegot cancer.”

Opportunity.  Yet why was I so eager for this chance?  Well, a close friend told me a story about a young man she knew whose mother died of cancer.  During the mother’s battle, she and her husband constantly told their son that she would be okay, that she would fight, she would overcome, and that he shouldn’t worry.  Then one day, she was dead, despite her determination and positive spirit.  The son was ANGRY, angry at not being a part of the process, angry that his parents didn’t trust him enough to be able to appreciate his mom’s condition, and angry that he couldn’t fully appreciate his mom during her final years and months because he was constantly told she would be okay.  The last thing I wanted was for my boys to be angry — wait, make that capital ANGRY — when I was gone.  Tyler would have enough on his hands without having to deal with ANGRY children.

Back to the opportunity.

“You know,” I started, propped up from my horizontal, pity-party position, “one day Mommy is going to die from cancer.  We don’t know if it’s in 20 years or 2, in 50 years or 5.  But chances are, cancer is how I will die.  Daddy and I want you to know that if you ever want to ask us questions or talk about anything, it’s okay.  We’ll be honest with you, so let us know if you ever need to talk about it.”

Our youngest then told me through his tears, “___’s dad died of cancer when he was 8.  I hope I’m at least 8 before you die.”

“I hope I live a lot longer than that, Bud.”

Then our oldest asked, while wiping away his tears, “Can we stop talking about this now?”

“Of course.  But if you ever need to talk about it with us, let us know, okay?”

Tyler was out of town for work that night, but drove home at 1am after he heard about the conversation. He squeezed in our king-size bed when he got home, sandwiched between the two boys who were laying horizontally, and me.

It’s out there.  My conscience is clear.  We’re good for now.  Maybe more talks to come, hopefully not.

ImageIf you are a parent with cancer, understand that your diagnosis affects everyone around you, especially your children.  When you pass, do you want your chilren to be in shock?  Do you want them to be angry — ANGRY?  Or do you want to have them involved enough so that they are as prepared as possibly to face life without you?  Give them the coping mechanisms while you can.  Teach them the lessons that will shape them into resilient, strong humans while you’re still around.  Denial is easier, but it’s also the cheap way out.

After our talk, we all seem to appreciate each other even more.  While I was afraid that it would scare the boys and distance them from me, it brought us closer.  What a great incentive to be honest with my kids!

Shannon Maveety originally wrote this blog a few years back and graciously shared it with us to pass on to our readers. Sadly Shannon passed away May 17th 2013. She was a bright light and is dearly missed!

We know everyone’s situation is different, children’s personalities are different, as well as family dynamics. Shannon’s decision is only ONE possibility in navigating this ever so challenging conversation. We are sensitive to the fact that it is never a one-size fits all kind of answer. Below we have included a few resources and perspectives to help give some other suggestions in dealing with these difficult conversations with young children:

When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children Paperback – September 21, 2004 by Wendy S., M.D. Harpham

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness: Supportive, Practical Advice from a Leading Child Life Specialist Paperback – December 20, 2011 by Kathleen McCue

Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick (A Harvard Medical School Book) Paperback – December 21, 2005 by Paula Rauch &  Anna Muriel