One of the most difficult things any parent will ever have to do is talk to their children about death and serious illness. Ideally this would be a chat had at the dinner table about hypothetical situations that could, and probably will, happen in the future. But not every family has that luxury. Often times, these devastating concepts have to be explained to children long before they’re ready.
For the many parents who find themselves in this situation, what’s the best way to go about it?
The answer isn’t simple at all. Each and every family is different, and in the end, you know what’s best for your child. However, there are a few helpful tips on how to approach the topic and make sure it is conveyed smoothly and clearly.
Approaching The Topic Of Serious Illness
Depending on the age of the child, the approach may or may not be easy. The easiest way to go about it is to just call a family meeting, or say that you need to sit down and have a chat. The younger ones should be swayed pretty easily, but older children are likely to know that something’s up, so it’s best to announce it at the last minute so they don’t grill you with questions or grow anxious with anticipation or worry beforehand. That being said, you shouldn’t just throw the issue right out there. Give them time to get comfortable, ask them how their day was, how they are feeling. Asking a few trivial questions and giving children time to say a few words before you dive in will make them feel like this more of a conversation and less of an announcement that they have to walk away with and handle on their own.
It will help very young children to make sure they understand the concepts of illness and death before you tell them that someone they love is sick. It’s important to use words and phrases that they understand. For example: when explaining something like cancer to kids, break it down by describing in easily understood terms how the body works, and how this illness changes that. It might take some research on your part, but the better you understand something, the better you can explain it to a wide variety of audiences. You’ll definitely want to be armed with as much information as you can for this task.
For all ages, it’s important to remember that the child will be, first and foremost, concerned with their relationship to the person who is sick, and how their illness will affect that relationship. Instead of delving right in with the announcement, maybe talk about the individual for a bit first, if they are not there to be a part of the conversation.
Making Sense Of The Senselessness
This will likely be the most difficult part. If you’re armed with information as mentioned before, it won’t be difficult to make sense of the facts in the situation. But, the difficult questions will come, the ones that you might not be able to answer. The hows, the whens, and the worst of all: the whys.
There is really no way to explain to children the reasons why these things happen, but it is an unfortunate reality: everyone is going to die someday, and not all of us will be lucky enough to die comfortably in our sleep of old age.
The way you crack open this reality highly depends on your beliefs and parenting philosophies, but however you do it, be prepared for your children to be confused for a while. This type of reality, even if understood hypothetically prior to the situation, can be difficult to grasp when someone very young is actually faced with it. They will need time and patience to come to terms.
Most importantly, they will need you to be distressingly honest. If you don’t know the answer to something, tell them that. It’s okay for them to know that there aren’t always easy explanations. Make sure you also reassure them that it is, indeed, okay to be confused, and to need time to understand and cope.
Dealing With The Aftermath
In the time following your initial discussion, more questions will likely pop up. This is going to be difficult for the entire family, but taking time out to be there for your children is imperative. Do whatever you can to let them know that you are there, especially since they may be dealing with an impending loss.
Under normal circumstances, setting boundaries with children is healthy and necessary. If you are busy with something important, they can wait for you to finish. If they continuosly pester you with a question you’ve already answered, they need to learn to accept it. But in areas like this that are inherently gray, those boundaries may not apply. If they are clearly distressed about something, they may become your most important task at the moment. If they continue to ask a question you’ve already answered, it may not be them trying to manipulate a different answer out of you: they may be desperate for more information or a clearer understanding of the concept.
Finding out a loved one is suffering from a chronic illness is a stressful and depressing time for everyone, including children. It’s a little tougher with them, though, because it’s harder for children to understand complex emotions like stress, so they might not be able to tell you what’s wrong. Further, the signs of being over-stressed or depressed in children are a little different than those for adults, so it’s important to be cognizant of these signs and keep your eye out.
If your child is having a significantly tough time dealing or understanding, there are a number of things that can be done. Seeking out counseling is a very wise option. Not every family has the resources to hire a professional, but you can also consider church counseling, and this might even be an issue that falls under the jurisdiction of a school counselor.
There are also plenty of ways you can help kids cope with stress at home, like yoga, meditation, or a new hobby. While it’s important to talk about the issue as much as your child needs to feel comfortable with it, it might also help to utilize some distraction techniques like a new pet, equine therapy, or even some good old-fashioned family fun. And there’s no underestimating the importance of quality time spent with your children, and also offering up quality time with their afflicted loved one.
It’s impossible to say that there’s no wrong way to talk to your children about the chronic illness of a loved on, but there’s definitely no set, right way. As long as you take the time to consider what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and to make sure you’re able to answer the more practical of their questions, things should go smoothly. Being patient and understanding in the aftermath is imperative, as is keeping some moments for yourself and your own healing. This is a tough time for any family, but if everyone sticks together, you’ll make it through.