Your natural inclination is to protect your kids from pain or any kind of suffering. Sometimes you might shield them from the truth. But when a spouse has been diagnosed with terminal illness, protecting the kids means openly discussing the difficult issue of death. And recognizing how they will be affected by the loss of one parent.
How is this crisis affecting them?
A terminal illness in the family triggers insecurity, fear, guilt, and anger in children. These emotions are on top of the overwhelming sadness and anxiety this trying time will bring.
Some children may blame themselves for mom’s sickness and their family’s suffering. They may fall into deep sadness and, in some cases, depression.
Children will sense that something has changed, even if you don’t tell them. And when, for example, auntie instead of mom or dad, begins to pick them up from school, they could worry that something is wrong. Maybe they did something bad and mom doesn’t care for them as much.
As more changes are introduced because mom is already receiving end-of-life care, they may anticipate more uncomfortable changes with fear.
One of the worst things you can do is to keep your children in the dark. Not understanding why all these is happening will make them more prone to fear, worry, and guilt. Most children are imaginative, and they may come up with beliefs that are more upsetting than reality in the absence of truth.
How to carry your children through
When you tell them, prepare the right words and analogies, be honest, and say just enough. If needed, ask hospice care practitioners for advice on how to speak to children about terminal illness.
Your kids may have lots of questions, which they may have difficulty expressing. When you don’t know the answers, it’s OK to say so. But tell them you will get the answers. Have honest conversations where they can express their thoughts and feelings.
Activities like team sports, arts, or writing could help kids release pent up emotions. For younger children, communicating through doodling, pictures, and toys may work better than adult-like conversations.
Because some children blame themselves when something bad happens, assure your kid that mom’s illness is not their fault. Also, too many changes in routine create a sense of instability and insecurity. So try to stick to normal routines as much as possible.
Your kids need to know and feel how much you love them. Never forget to spend time with them. Have video calls if you’re far away. If they’re allowed to, don’t be afraid to let your child visit in the hospital and cuddle with mommy and daddy. Ask family for help when the kids need to be looked after and you need to spend time at the hospice or hospital.
Communicate hope instead of fear. Tell them that whatever happens, they will remain loved and cared for. If they’re old enough, get them involved. Let them know how they can help care for mom. Let them know that you can win this battle by going through it together as a family.
Terminal illness is disruptive and heartbreaking for everyone. But it’s also an opportunity to develop resilience and strength, even among your little ones. If you will listen well, be honest, emotionally present, and make them feel secure and loved throughout, you can come out of this difficult time as a family.