Reviews & Profiles
How do you tell your children you’re dying?
Posted Thursday, October 24 2013 at 01:00
Arthur 16, and his brother Patrick 12, (not real names) discovered that their mother was HIV positive unexpectedly. For Arthur, it was through an unplanned for conversation with her, while for Patrick, it was through his brother.
After a life of hardship, and more than 10 years of being looked after by the only parent they had, it seemed like life had dealt them a heavy blow. Finally, the source of their mother’s on and off sickness and mood swings became clear. They lived in denial at first, then it sunk in, and each of them dealt with it his own way.
This is not something they plan to confront her about, but like a cancer, it worries and scares them that their beloved mother will soon depart too, for it is already a miracle that she is still alive.
Like Arthur and Patrick’s mother, several parents have contemplated whether or not to tell their children about terminal illnesses, while others assume that somehow the children will find out. However, Barbra Maureen Kalumba, a child counsellor at Mildmay Centre, encourages parents to disclose to their children the terminal illnesses because they can handle it.
Most parents, however, consider disclosure a challenge because of the following concerns.
When to disclose
Parents wonder as to when they should disclose this information. How will the children take it? When is the time right for this? And their panic is valid because it is traumatising for children to learn that one or both of their parents could die.
However, Kalumba says to avoid all this confusion, it is best to talk to children about a terminal illness shortly after diagnosis.
How to disclose a terminal illness
Kalumba points out that the time for disclosure is important, therefore, parents should set a date.
“For example, she could take the whole family out and as they have a nice time, she starts with questions to the children of how they feel about their parent and child relationship,” she shares.
Another way, Kalumba suggests, is for parents to approach the issue by posing questions like, “‘When was the last time daddy fell sick?’ As the children respond, the parent can continue with, ‘Well daddy went to see a doctor, some tests were done and it was discovered he has cancer’.”
After the children’s response to this, Kalumba suggests the parent should reassure them that he or she is undergoing treatment but there is a probability of recovery or death.
“For a parent with a terminal illness like cancer, children should be informed that the treatment they are undergoing might make them very weak, lose their hair and even reach a point of not being able to work,” says Kalumba. This, she says, would prepare them for what is to come.
Apart from affirming their love and requesting their children to pray for them, parents should use that opportunity to tell them a name of a relative or friend who will take care of them when the illness gets worse or when the parent dies.
“For assurance of this, the party talked about as the caretaker, should be present when disclosure is made,” suggests Kalumba. She cautions parents not to give children too much information for example, describing how the cancer will eat into the brain, because this would scare them.
Although most African societies are strongly bent on protecting children from grieving their parents, Kalumba differs saying talking to children about a terminal illness enables them to walk with the parent through the journey of treatment towards recovery or death.
“By the time the parent passes on, the question of, ‘how did my father or mother die’ is already answered and it is now a question of how could God let this happen,” she adds.
Since we react differently to situations, Kalumba states that children will most definitely have different reactions towards a parent’s terminal illness. “Some children withdraw and go quiet, some might have no reaction, some break down and cry saying, ‘No mummy you are going to be fine’,” she adds.
Some children may even run away for fear of seeing their parent in pain or die while others stick to denial while others depending on age, pick up habits.
When it comes to picking habits, Kalumba says a seven-year-old might play sick or wet their bed just to get attention from the sick parent. An adolescent on the other hand might pick on alcohol or even look for love in the wrong places or avoid the ill parent.