Breast Cancer: Talking to Children about Cancer and Death
The last prayer said, the mourners began walking away from the graveside. Five-year-old Channing and nine-year-old Sara resisted leaving the church cemetery. Channing seemed especially upset. We had come to Grandma Johnson’s funeral, but she hadn’t been buried. Her coffin still rested above the hole in the ground. He wanted to see what happened next.
So we stayed. The men seemed a bit unnerved to have two children watching their every move as they lowered Grandma into her grave. But Sara and Channing found the process fascinating rather than gruesome. When the coffin was fully lowered, we each tossed a flower on her coffin. We said good-bye to Grandma, and once her coffin was covered with dirt, they were ready to leave.
Talking to children about death can be difficult, but our assumptions about what will disturb them often turn out to be wrong. My children wanted to know the mechanical details of what happened to their grandmother after she died. Other children at different ages may have different questions and worries.
Telling Sara and Channing their grandmother wouldn’t get better from her cancer was hard. Deciding if they should see her unconscious in her last few weeks was also hard. We were in and out of her small home regularly, so we decided to let them decide. They were with us at Grandma’s house, but if they didn’t want to go into her room, we didn’t make them. We also made sure that we took them out for some fun, so that they could be noisy.
When cancer hit our own household, our children were 17 and 20, but some of the lessons we had learned when they were younger still applied.
• Be as open and truthful as possible. When Sara asked me if I was going to die from my breast cancer, I said, “I don’t know. I hope not. I promise I will do everything I can to stay alive.” Even very young children pick up that something is wrong in the house. An honest explanation in the simplest possible terms appropriate for their age can actually relieve their fears, which can be worse than the reality.
• Let them know ahead of time about going bald, losing a breast, or other physical changes that might surprise them. If you can be calm about these changes, they will be too. However, it is OK to cry in front of your children. Expressing your honest emotions gives them permission to express theirs. When you can, be matter-of-fact and cheerful about what needs to be done, but trying to fake emotions confuses children.
• Children are naturally self-centered, so they want to know how cancer affects them. Make sure they understand that cancer is not catching and that they didn’t do anything to cause the cancer. If it appears that you are not going to get well, let them know who will take care of them after your death.
• Try to keep their lives as normal as possible with the same schedules, play dates, and activities. Of course, Mom won’t be able to cook their favorite foods right after surgery, they may need to take on more household chores, and Dad may not be able to be at every basketball game because he’s taking care of Mom. But do what you can to let your kids be kids.
• Give them more than one opportunity to talk about what is happening and ask questions. At one point in my cancer treatment, my husband took our son out to dinner and initiated the cancer discussion again. My prognosis wasn’t good, and worry filled our house. They needed to talk it out. I don’t know what they said. I’ve been told that they sat crying in our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. But afterwards, I could tell that our son was less tense.
• Ask about local resources for children. Some communities have centers where children can meet other kids who have been affected by cancer. Counseling and play therapy may help your children, especially if your illness is long and your prognosis grim.
• Read more about children and their responses to cancer and death.
The American Cancer Society has excellent information on talking to children about cancer. Their site “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis" has excellent information and even has suggestions for ways to phrase the answers to difficult questions.
Hospice also has an informative website on “Talking to Children about Death” This site answers many questions parents have and includes a list about how children tend to respond to death at different ages.
For parents one of the biggest worries after cancer strikes is how it will affect their children. Whether your cancer involves brief treatment or leads to death, your children will be changed by the experience. However, with information and sensitivity, you can help your children grow in positive ways despite the tears and sadness.