It is our job as parents to protect, nurture, and guide our children into whole human beings. It is our responsibility to do this to the best of our ability. If we do it right, the parenting role will take us outside our comfort zone more often than it doesn’t. Sometimes stretching us into improved versions barely resembling the old.
We know it isn’t best to take the easy way out and give in to whining, or temper tantrums, or tears when enforcing bedtime, curfew, or homework. We establish house rules and expect there will be resistance in the teen through young adult years, while we live under the same roof. Still, we know that it is best not to give in just because they will be upset.
That same truth appears here – where we are talking about a parent’s terminal diagnosis or life-limiting illness.
Navigating the rocky terrain of life-limiting illness and terminal diagnosis is a challenge none of us fantasize about. Most don’t spend time thinking about how to handle such a situation in advance. There’s no play book, no manual, and certainly no instruction sheet for reference. When it comes to our kids, though, we have to get it right – and we only have one chance. What we give them during this time will shape who them become as adults.
“We’re Not Telling The Children”
If this is you, this your fear talking. You want to keep things as they are, falsely, in an effort to deny what is happening. In an effort to hold on to yesterday for one more day. But it isn’t fair to your children.
I know you think you are doing the right thing, but you are doing the easy thing. There is nothing on Earth harder than breaking your child’s heart. You tell yourself you are doing the right thing, by delaying that broken heart as long as you can. What you are really doing though is postponing that broken heart until such time as you are either gone, or too weak to be able to support their processing.
You don’t tell the children so you won’t have to deal with their pain – not so they won’t have to deal with yours…that’s not what we do as parents.
Now is when you’re children need to know. Not tomorrow or next week, because I promise you tomorrow, or next week, or the week after will bring the day you most dread when it will be too late.
Tell them when you are diagnosed. Let them be a part of your healthcare and support team. Including them early on prevents them from being at the ‘can’t we do something stage’ when you’ve already determined there isn’t. You don’t have to have all the answers when you tell them. The fact you let them in on the process will allow them to deal with whatever comes along.
You are leaving them and that is inconceivable. However, they are going to have to live a whole lifetime without you. They are going to need every second possible to grasp that and to gain the tools necessary to make it through some important milestones and intense challenges.
They will feel powerless in all this – much like you – so give them opportunities to feel empowered. Give small children small jobs, like being “Mom’s water pitcher manager”. Give older children tasks that play to their strengths like making Dad’s favorite play list or a favorite sandwich. Allow them to feel they serve a purpose in supporting you.
Give them space to process and opportunities to express their fears, feelings and faith. They will need help navigating these emotional waters, give them as much time possible to do that by telling them as soon as possible. They need you, now more than ever, in order to cope with losing you. After all who better to teach them?
When you keep the truth from children you deny them the maximum time possible to process their anticipatory grief and to cherish their time with you.
“They’re Too Young To Know What’s Going On”
No child is ever too young to know when something is changing. Even infants are affected by grief, as they pick up on the emotions and energy in the environment and in their caregivers. They will need extra soothing, comforting and nurturing to calm their distress. Infants and toddlers need extra physical comforting because they cannot process linguistically yet. They might need to be held more. They might need extra reassurance about mundane things. They’ll need to sleep more. They’ll need you to honestly deal with your own feelings because they will sense the discord if you are not.
The older the child the more aware they will be of the non-verbal cues in the household. No, your three year old will not process the same information as your sixteen year old. They still need to be part of the process, though.
Why Tell Them When It’s Only Going To Hurt Them?
Because every child knows the temperature in their own house. Every child I’ve ever worked with, knew things were bad long before the divorce papers were filed. Yet, every parent felt so sure that ‘the children didn’t know anything’. So, many children end up in therapy for ‘behavior problems’ only to find out they are lost in an emotional forest because they experience congruence: “I sense something is wrong, but everyone says it’s all fine.” The truth of their experience clashes with the lies of adults and creates chaos internally. If you ever wondered how ‘gaslighting’ got it’s start, here it is.
If this is true, then it is more true when a parent is terminally ill. Our children are comprised of our blood and DNA. They know things about us. They know when we are not being honest and truthful. They know when we don’t feel well. And most of all they know when we are afraid.
It’s more than ok to share that with them – it is necessary for their emotional wellbeing.
When we are diagnosed we are not the only ones…everyone else in our life receives the diagnosis as well.
When we don’t share the truth with others we take away their rights. Yes. Their rights. Their right to support us as they desire. Their right to take care of us like we’ve taken care of them. Their right to have as much time possible to process feelings and anticipatory grief. Their right to share this experience with us. Their right to their own experience of our dying and death.
When we don’t share truth with others we take their freedom. The freedom to choose how to say good-bye, how to spend their time, and how to grieve. We rob them of the opportunity that comes with time, too. The opportunity to share the words on our hearts, to make lasting memories, and to bear witness to and for one another.
When we keep the truth from children we are not shielding them, we are isolating them.
If you or your spouse has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness or has received a terminal prognosis, you and your kids have already been dealt a crappy hand. Don’t make it worse by stealing precious time from one another because it is painful. It’s going to be painful no matter what. You can’t control the wounding, but you can control the bleeding, so to speak. Every decision you make regarding sharing, or not sharing, the truth with your kids impacts them in one of two ways: either helping the healing process or complicating the grieving.
Here’s something else.
Tell the children because they already know. And if they already know, then they also know you aren’t telling them the truth. And if they know you aren’t telling them the truth, they can’t trust you to tell them truth in the future.
And that is the most damage you can inflict in a parent/child relationship.
We cannot protect our children from a diagnosis. We can only help to arm them with appropriate tools to come through this to the other side.
This loss is something they will walk with the rest of their lives. It is important we do this one thing right because there are no do-overs. We only get one chance to say good-bye.
Holistic Support Specialist, Interfaith Minister, First Responder Chaplain, Shaman, Energy Healer, Licensed Social Worker (ret)