Receiving a terminal illness is never an easy diagnosis. It can be particularly difficult, however, when you have young children. They have a hard time understanding the permanence of death, let alone accepting that someone they love, such as a parent or grandparent, will soon be gone forever. It is still important to talk about it, however, because preparing your children for the death of a loved one will help them heal from that trauma. This is the dilemma that Claire faces, and how she is preparing her family for her death.
Claire On Preparing Her Family For Her Death
When Claire Romeijn was 29, she received the most devastating news: She had cancer. Bowel cancer, to be specific. After the birth of her fifth child, she began experiencing pretty intense abdominal pain. Finally, about eight months later, she went and had it checked out. That’s when the doctors discovered a tumor in her colon so large they couldn’t even get the camera through. Not giving up without a fight, Claire underwent surgery as well chemotherapy. For a period of time, she was cancer-free. Unfortunately, that was not to last, and all too soon, she was back at the doctor’s. This time, however, the prognosis was even worse. Her cancer was back, and it was stage four. (1)
Now 33, Claire is going through the last chemotherapy treatment available. Still, the doctors have not given her false hope. They don’t have a cure for her, and her life expectancy is very short. Claire is terminally ill and is going to die and soon.
Talking To Her Kids About Death
As any mother would, while she was still processing the information that she, herself, was dying, all she could think about was how she was going to tell her five daughters. She knew her oldest daughter, who is 10, was going to have the hardest time with it. Claire knew she had to tell them, but she also didn’t want to overwhelm them with a big, horrible announcement. She wanted to do it softly and in a way that would provoke conversation and questions to help them understand the situation better rather than just saying, “Mommy’s going to die.”
Claire decided to start this process over one of her daughters’ favorite breakfasts: Pancakes. As her daughters were eating, she told them that she would be starting chemotherapy again. Her oldest daughter sat very quietly at the other end of the table, processing what her mother had just told her. Then she asked if that meant that Claire’s cancer was back, to which Claire responded ‘yes’.
Claire told ABC that it has been difficult for her daughters and her husband to process the information. She still hasn’t figured out how she’s going to tell them that she is terminally ill. Preparing her family for her death is certainly an overwhelming task. She is trying to help her children through it as well as her partner, who is looking towards a life as a single dad of five daughters. All of this while she, herself, has to process her own death and how she will not grow old with her husband or get to see the women each of her daughters becomes. Even more tough is knowing her youngest girls will have little to no memories of her. Claire says that one thing that has been helping her process it and also will help her daughters is by making keepsakes for them.
“My big girls will remember, I know they will but the five, three and one-year-old is a different story of what memories they’ll hold on to,” Claire said. “I want to write a letter to them all individually, about how much I love them [and] funny little things their dad might not remember. I want to write a list of ‘Mummy’s advice’, for when they are older,”
Jokingly she said she has already assigned her daughters’ aunties to things like the period talk, as she doesn’t believe her husband will be up to the task.
Preparing Her Husband For Her Death
Claire is naturally worried for her husband. She says that they have had moments of grieving together but that he tries to remain positive as much as possible, so opening up is hard. He doesn’t talk about it much with her and hasn’t spoken to his friends about it at all. Claire says that she and her husband are focusing on making memories. He has also been planning trips for them, big and small, in his mind. He then goes and maps them out on a calendar of where they will go and when. This helps him cope with the reality of her diagnosis. Claire says that his optimism helps her stay together.
Claire, too, has trouble. Her doctor has given her a life expectancy date which gives her plenty of anxiety. That date is fast approaching, and she knows that one day soon, she will have to leave her children and husband behind. She says that she allows herself to be sad but that she doesn’t let her grief overcome her. Her family helps her through those particularly hard days.
“I’ve got five girls who need me, and they are the ones who make me get out of bed and try to keep [life] as normal as possible,” she explained.
How To Prepare Your Children For The Death Of A Loved One
Whether it is a sibling, parent, grandparent, friend, or relative, accepting death is difficult, especially for children. The first thing to recognize is that each child has a different level of understanding of death and a different way that they will process it. Some children will act out or refuse to follow family rules. Others will refuse to accept the fact that their loved one is dying or not want to listen to any explanations, preferring to pretend that nothing is wrong. Temper tantrums, behavioral outbursts or regression, and fear of leaving their parents to, for example, go to school can be very real for them. They may feel fear, anxiety, pressure, guilt, or abandonment.
The American Cancer Society says that children, especially younger children, will have a hard time understanding that in the near future, death might happen. What they can understand, however, is that there is something in your body called cancer that is telling your body to stop working, and that one day your body might stop working. It is important to always be truthful with a child, but to give them information bit by bit as the parent or loved one gets sicker. (2)
A quiet space is important when telling your child that you are going to die. Having their other parent or trusted adult there is a good idea. If that is not available, then a nurse, social worker, or doctor can sit in with you and help to explain things to your child. You must reassure them that they will be okay and taken care of. The American Cancer Society suggests that you:
- Be as honest as you can about what’s going on.
- Let them know that it is okay to feel angry, confused, sad, or scared.
- Reassure them that their feelings are normal.
- Reassure them you have planned so they will still be cared for.
- Encourage them to open up about their feelings and ask questions at any time.
- Be clear in communicating with them and use words that they can understand.
- Reassure them that they will always be loved and cared for even when you are not there anymore.
- Give teenagers space and time if they need it, and remind them that it is okay for them to continue with the usual activities they enjoy.
Explain The Permanence of Death
Often a good way to start is simply by asking them how they think you are doing. Kids are very perceptive and can recognize when a situation is getting serious and can see that you are getting sicker. Ask them what changes they’ve noticed and what they think those mean. Don’t shy away from using the words “die” and “death.” Children don’t usually understand what these nicer words actually mean. Explain to them that death is not like a trip or going to sleep: With death, you don’t “come back” or “wake up.” You may have to repeat these conversations, as it may take time for children to process and understand them fully. Many storybooks help explain death to children. Ask your healthcare provider about those resources.
Finally, give your children a safe space to share their feelings and discuss their fears. Regularly ask them how they feel and reassure them that feeling angry, sad, confused, or whatever else they might feel is normal and okay. Ensure the children and teens are informed as the loved one becomes closer to death. The first instinct is often to try and protect them from the realities of the illness. This will only make things worse for the children after you are gone.
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- “This is how Claire is preparing her family (and herself) for her death.” ABC Net
- “Preparing a Child for the Death of a Parent or Loved One.” Cancer