Talking to children if the cancer doesn't get better
This information is for anyone whose cancer is not expected to get better and who would like suggestions about how to tell a child or teenager.
If the cancer doesn't get better
Back to top
Many people with cancer are cured or live with their cancer for many years. Even when a cancer is advanced, people may sometimes live with it for a long time.
If your cancer has come back or isn’t getting better, your children will know and sense that things have changed. It’s important to tell them what’s going on.
It can be helpful to first ask the child what they understand about what’s been happening. From this starting point, you can gently correct any misunderstandings and gradually tell them about the current situation.
Give them step-by-step information about what’s happening. Tell them that the cancer has come back and you need more treatment to control it. Reassure them that you and your doctors will be doing everything possible to keep it under control. Try to be honest but still offer hope.
If treatment is no longer controlling the cancer, you’ll need to tell them that you’re going to get more poorly. Children also need to know that it’s okay to talk about you not getting better. They might try to protect you by not talking, so it’s important to let them know they don’t have to do this. Children often have worries about who will care for them if you’re no longer there. It can help to talk to them about this and reassure them that they’ll always be cared for.
This information is for people with advanced cancer who only have a short time to live and want to prepare their children.
Preparing children for the loss of a parent is an incredibly hard thing to do. Some people may feel they know how best to do this for their own family. But you don’t have to do it alone and it’s not unusual to need a lot of support from family and close friends. Professionals such as social workers, palliative care nurses, doctors, counsellors and psychologists can also help you. You may find it useful to rehearse the words you plan to use with another adult.
Even when talking about dying, it’s still best to talk openly and honestly with your children and to use straightforward language. Talking openly allows you to find ways of helping your children to cope in the future. It will also give you the opportunity to show how much you care for each other and allow you to sort out any issues you have.
Use straightforward language, which includes saying the words ‘dying‘ or ‘died‘, when you tell young children about death. Saying a parent is ‘lost’ or has ‘passed away’ can be confusing. They may wonder why no one is looking for the person who has died. Saying a person has ‘gone away’ may make a child feel that they’ve been abandoned. Try not to use ’going to sleep’ to describe dying, because young children may then be afraid of going to sleep.
Young children often need to be reassured that they’re not responsible for someone’s death, as they can often find reasons to blame themselves.
It’s difficult to describe to a child how someone will die, as no one can ever predict exactly when it will happen. Children need to have gradual explanations about what has happened and why, and what may happen next.
Older children may want to know more about what happens when someone is dying and need more information. We have more information about end of life which you may find helpful to read.
A child’s understanding of death generally depends on how old they are:
Very young children (aged under three)
Children under three can pick up that something very serious is happening. They don’t understand that death is permanent and may confuse it with sleep. However, children as young as three can grieve.
Young children (aged 3–5)
Children aged 3–5 may have heard about dying but don’t really understand what it means. They may imagine that a dead person will come back or is living somewhere else.
They often need to be reminded the person who has died will not come back again, but that they can still remember all the things they did together.
Older children (aged 6–12)
Children aged 6–12 know about death but, as with children of other ages, they may not always understand the emotions they feel. By about nine, children begin to understand death more like adults. Their worry is more likely to be that death is frightening or painful.
Teenagers often find it harder to cope than younger children with the news that someone is dying. They’re old enough to know that this means a major change and loss in their life. They may cope in ways that are difficult for you to deal with, such as refusing to talk about the illness. Others may adapt and try to become closer to their parents.
Teenagers need to know that there’s no right or wrong way to feel right now. They may get angry with you and then feel guilty about how they’ve acted, or feel bad about spending time with their friends.
It’s important to make sure they get the support they need. Cruse Bereavement Care provides information about how teenagers understand death, and can offer support.
Questions children may ask
Back to top
It may help to think about questions your children may ask in advance, and to think about how you want to respond. There isn’t a right or wrong way. What’s important is that your children feel able to ask questions and talk about how they feel.
What will happen to me?
Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad will still be here for you and will look after you. It’s very important to me to make sure you’ll be safe and looked after, so we’ve already talked about it.
Am I going to die too?
You can’t catch cancer. Most people die when they’re old and their bodies get worn out. It’s very unusual and sad for someone young to be so ill that the doctors can’t make them better.
Will other people I love die too?
Daddy/Mummy/Granny/Grandad is well and healthy at the moment and will be here to look after you.
Is it my fault?
Nothing you did or said made me ill.
Organisations such as Marie Curie Cancer Care provide information about supporting children and teenagers when an adult is dying. Cruse Bereavement Care has a special website for bereaved children and young people, and a free helpline on 0808 808 1677.
Some people want to help their children connect with memories of the things they've shared. You may like to make a memory box. We have more detailed information on memory boxes on a separate page.