When you decide to become a parent, you imagine your child living a full, healthy and happy life. Sometimes, however, medical issues result in the worst kind of tragedy: the knowledge that you will outlive your beloved child. If your child has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is important to be honest with them about what will happen. It’s also important to help them feel hopeful about their future, even if their life expectancy isn’t very long.
Regardless of Age, Remember That Their Feelings Come First
While you need to feel your own pain and work through it, your child should not bear the burden of your suffering. Your little one will be struggling with enough as it is without worrying about the impact it will have on you. Try to present yourself as supportive and loving. Rely on others, such as friends, family, or your spouse for support when you feel overwhelmed.
Your child may need outside help to process the grief and anger that come with a terminal diagnosis. Working with a mental health professional, as well as a member of the clergy, if your family is spiritual, can provide your child with critical coping mechanisms after a terminal diagnosis.
Communicating with Children Ages 3 to 7
The younger children are, the less likely they are to have a concrete concept of death and finality. That can be both a blessing and a burden. Your child may not truly understand what it means to die. You may consider purchasing children’s books focused on this topic. Whatever you do, be sure to break the ideas down into small, understandable portions and to use words and concepts your child can understand. Once your child knows that he or she is sick and most likely will not get better, you can help your child find hope.
Younger children can be easier to build hope with, for a variety of reasons. Your child may not have a truly formed sense of self yet, allowing for an easier time accepting the idea of returning to God or the Earth, or how they best frame the end of their life. Simple things, like holiday gifts or a visit from a cosplayer channeling their favorite superhero or cartoon character can give them immeasurable joy. Encourage your child to develop goals and do everything you can to help them meet them. Remind your child that your love and connection will always last, and they will always be a part of you and your family.
Cultivating Hope in Children Ages 8 to 12
Grade-school aged children are more likely to have a concrete understanding of death. This can make explaining the medical issues a little simpler. Of course, being old enough to understand death means your older child could experience fear and anxiety about the terminal diagnosis. As with younger children, working with a mental health professional to process the emotions involved can help.
You should also talk with your children about short and mid-term goals they may have. Do they want to see the ocean or visit a theme park? Do they want to try to keep going long enough to read the last book in their favorite series, not yet released? Helping your child develop goals can give them a sense of joy and hope even while struggling through a serious illness. Make art and other memorials with your child before they pass, such as a mural or a new yard swing, to help them know they will always be loved and remembered.
Talking with Teens About Terminal Illnesses
In some ways, teenagers are close to adulthood, so it can be easier to communicate about the illness and the prognosis. In other ways, it can be harder. Teens are often acutely aware of social expectations, and they will grieve the things they are missing out on, such as playing sports, graduating or going to prom. Professional help can help them process this loss. Many times, for older kids, leaving a legacy can help give them hope. Whether it’s writing a book about their experience or building a new feature at a local park, leaving a piece of themselves can help them feel hopeful and fulfilled.