Most people who are diagnosed with cancer worry about dying. But grown-ups’ thoughts about dying might not be the same as children’s thoughts – especially if those children are still small. For example, your very young children might get upset if they’re away from you for a while, but they won’t understand what a lasting separation – like death – means. By the ages of four to six, though, a young person can start to grasp the idea of death.
What to say
No matter what might happen, your young children need comfort and support right now – so unless your health care team has said that you might die soon, you shouldn’t have to bring up the topic of death. If the subject comes up during a regular talk, though, it’s a chance to speak with your children about the natural cycle of living and dying.
Here are some ways to talk about death with young children:
- As a starting point for your talk, use examples like the death of a family pet, or the changing of the seasons.
- If your doctors feel good about your recovery, you might say: “No, the doctors don’t think that I’m going to die,” or “There is very good treatment for my cancer,” or “I’m going to take very good care of myself and live a long time.”
- If your chance of surviving cancer isn’t good, you’ll have to balance not wanting to lie to your children with not wanting your kids to worry about your death before it’s necessary. Try saying something like, “The doctors are worried about me, but we’re going to fight this. They’re going to give me strong medicine to try to make me feel better,” or “Sometimes people die from cancer but I don’t expect that to happen to me.”
- Let your children know that they can ask you about anything. Help them to feel comfortable talking about their fears or worries.
Common reactions of young children
It can be hard to talk with children about your chances of dying from cancer. At the same time, young children may not act like you’d expect when learning about your illness:
- Young children may get more upset than usual about being separated from you when they find out that you’re ill. For example, they may not want you to leave the house at all without them.
- Young children, more than their older brothers or sisters, may come straight out and ask if you will die – even if the subject has never come up.
- Children’s ideas about death may not be right, because they’ve learned about it from TV and the movies. Ask them what they think will happen when a person dies. You may be surprised by the answer.
- Some children may not want to speak about their feelings, but they might send messages to you through their play, or through their artwork.
- Young children need to know that they’ll be taken care of, no matter what happens.
American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer. www.cancer.org.
Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Recuperado 6/30/08 de www.cancercare.org.
Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins.
National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Recuperado 7/1/08 de www.cancer.gov.