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How to break the news that a parent is sick

Kid sad with mom - how to break the news that a parent is sick 

I was told the worst news I’ve ever heard on one of the worst days (Christmas Eve 2013), while I was in the worst position (lying partly naked on my back).

“Uh…lessee’ here… you have breast cancer,” proclaimed the radiologist with like, the worst, bedside manner.

After she offered hollow condolences I began the dazed walk home. I cursed the pet who was caterwauling while I tried to think. Then I realized the primal moans were me.

“How will I ever cope?” I wondered. Then a thought hit me like an anvil dropped on my back. “What will I tell the kids?!”

As my husband and I dreaded, our two children were devastated by the news. However a rehearsed script helped us guide our children through their initial emotions.

If you ever need to tell your kids you’re really sick, an open communication plan is the best way to go, says Melanie McDonald, a social worker for the Vancouver-based BC Cancer Agency. But when and how should you tell your kids?

“It’s usually best to tell your children after your illness is confirmed, for example, after biopsy results,” says Melanie.

Often kids do advance “spying,” like pretending to play while listening to serious telephone conversations. So they may be more poised for the revelation than you think.

When you do “out” your illness, Calgary-based child psychiatrist Chris Wilkes advises using direct, specific language. Also reassure your children that although you’re sick, you’ll still take care of them.

“You can say, ‘I’m unwell. I’ve seen some doctors and they’re helping me. But my job will always be to parent you even as I work on getting better,’” says Chris.

After you drop the bombshell, check your children’s knowledge and encourage them to ask questions. However, don’t expect your children to react a certain way. Children of different ages will process the information at their appropriate cognitive level.

For instance, Cher Curshen, an integrative wellness coordinator at The Dorothy Ley Hospice in Toronto, explains it’s normal for a toddler to cry, then play with toys mere minutes after learning you’re ill. A typically narcissistic teenager may seem more preoccupied about how your sickness will affect him than you.

Don’t feel slighted by a seeming lack of concern. And watch for displaced emotions. In my case, my nine-year-old daughter Charlotte was very argumentative for weeks after learning about my cancer.

After a particularly irritable day, Charlotte sobbed and said, “I’m mad because I’m so scared mommy!”

From then on I’ve encouraged Charlotte to cry and talk about her worries instead of displaying rage. Melanie says helping kids express their emotions and accepting offers to comfort you empowers them. I leaned on my teenage son when I struggled to walk and gamely let Charlotte ply me with sweltering blankets after my surgery. They still like spoiling me.

What if your illness is terminal though? How can you possibly present such dismal news?

Cher suggests saying, “The doctors may not have the right medicine to make my illness go away. But someone will always take care of you no matter what.”

Disclosing the severity of your illness is the “first of several small seeds to plant,” says Cher. Many other delicate family conversations will follow.

It was a very dark day when I told our kids I was sick. But my “opening statement” helped cushion the blow and it’s become a mantra and modified mission statement to guide us forward.

“I have cancer. It will be removed. I’ll be cured.” The more I say this. The more I believe it’s true.

Having a conversation

Telling your children you’re seriously ill is a truly dire task. While there aren’t definite rules for handling this conversation, try to avoid these pitfalls:

Control spiraling emotions

“It’s okay to cry. But it’s really scary for children if parents totally break down,” says social worker Melanie McDonald. Seek professional counseling if your fears become overwhelming.

Avoid euphemisms

“Truthfully answer children’s questions,” says Melanie.

“Don’t say things like, ‘Dying is like sleeping’ because children will be afraid to sleep.”

Spoonfuls of sugar won’t help the medicine go down

“Don’t minimize hard truths. You’ll teach kids to deny their own illnesses and assume the worst about yours,” says psychiatrist Chris Wilkes.

Don’t pretend you’re healthy

Surprisingly some parents never tell their kids they’re sick.

“Bring your children along on your journey,” says hospice worker Cher Curshen. “Otherwise they’ll feel like you’re on a boat ride and they’re left on the shore.“

Cher says kids may assume they’ve become castaways because they caused your illness. Help your children travel lightly over the rough waters ahead. Unwarranted guilt and confusion will encumber an already emotionally laden child.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.


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