Finding out that a diagnosis is terminal is a shocking and emotional time. We hope that the suggestions in this information are helpful, but you may have different ideas about how to approach your children. That is perfectly okay. There is no right or wrong way to cope with this situation. Even with support, discussions can be distressing for you and the children, or they may not go as you had planned. The important thing to remember is that you are trying to do the best you can in really difficult circumstances
Preparing children for the loss of a parent is an incredibly hard thing to do. You will know the best way to do this for your own family. But talking over the different ways of approaching this can be helpful. You do not have to do it alone. You may 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.
Sometimes, your closest relatives are so distressed themselves that they may not be able to understand the best way to help you or your children. And family members may have different views about when and how to talk to the children. It might help you to involve them in your discussions with professionals, but only when you are ready to do this and are clear about what you want.
Be honest and open
Being honest and including children in what is happening is usually the best approach. It is natural to want to protect children from painful experiences. But we know that adults who had someone close to them die when they were young often wish they had been told what was happening. They knew something was wrong, but everyone told them the opposite or would not talk to them at all.
When talking about dying, talk openly with your children and use clear, age-appropriate language. This allows you to find ways of helping your children to cope in the future. It may also give you the chance to show how much you care for each other. It is often easier for children to hear information in small chunks, rather than all at once. You may need to repeat simple messages several times. It is important to explain things in language that children can understand.
Tell them that everyone, including the doctors, nurses, and yourself, have done everything possible to keep you living, but there is no medicine that can make you better. Explain that it will soon be your time to die.
Be prepared for the possibility of children asking what happens to people once they have died. How you approach this will depend on your own beliefs. It may be helpful to think in advance about your answer to this kind of question.
Use clear language
Use simple words such as ‘dying’ or ‘died’ when you tell young children about death. Try not to use phrases that may confuse them. For example, saying that you will be ‘going away’ or ‘going to a better place’ may make a child feel that you are abandoning them. Try not to use ‘going to sleep’ to describe dying, because young children may then be afraid of going to sleep.
Also encourage the people who will talk to your children after you die to use clear language. Saying a parent or guardian is ‘lost’ or has ‘passed away’ can be confusing. They may wonder why no one is looking for the person who has died.
Talking honestly and clearly about what is happening helps your children to feel more secure at an upsetting time. Young children can often find reasons to blame themselves in ways that you would not expect. Being honest with them helps to reassure them that they are not responsible for someone’s death. You will also be giving them the chance to talk about how they are feeling and ask questions that are important to them.
Check their understanding
Be aware of what your children may hear when you are talking to other adults. It can be frightening for children to understand some but not all of the facts that they overhear. Children are imaginative, and in stressful situations using that imagination can sometimes scare them. They may imagine far worse than what is actually happening. This is particularly true if they are trying to make sense of what is happening without talking to you directly. It is a good idea to check their understanding every now and then. This is especially important if you think they may have accidentally overheard a conversation not meant for them.