How Do You Talk to Your Kids When A Parent is Seriously Ill?

He freaked out.

We were having our weekly Pizza Picnic Party and movie, and my wife had chosen A Monster Callsa “very touching story about a boy who feels very damaged, guilty and mostly angry.”

The boy is about 12, an excellent artist and bit of a loner, and he’s struggling with his mother’s terminal cancer – yes, you might see some parallels. A few minutes in my immediate thought was that the character might as well be D, our 12 year-old son. Susan had chosen it with the idea that it would open dialogue, get the kids to talk about their feelings. What it opened, apparently, was a shadowy alley into the depths of our youngest son’s darkest fears.

We’d made it about 15 minutes into the film when our 8 year-old jumped up on the sofa, covered his ears, and began to scream “Turn it off, turn it off, TURN IT OFF!” We were all startled and panicked and we scrambled to turn the damn thing off. When, after several minutes, he’d calmed a bit, we asked him why it had affected him so much. He said it was scary. It was scary, but not in the conventional sense. He watches far more terrifying fare. I think the story just hit way too close to the bone, and he didn’t have the tools or the ability to express himself. He’s 8, after all.

So last Wednesday I asked his older brother why he thought the film had freaked out his little brother so much. “He said it was scary,” he replied.

“I know what he said, but do you think that was the real reason?”

“I think he was scared.” This conversation was quickly becoming elliptical, so I decided it was time to have the talk.

“So D,” I started, “you know mommy’s cancer has spread. The doctors are telling us that they’re treating this as a chronic condition – in other words they’re saying that this is something they can’t fix. She’s going to continue all kinds of treatment, and maybe everything will work out, but the chances of her being with us five or ten years from now are not good.”

He was looking down at the table, hiding his eyes beneath a fringe of hair. Fraught moments passed. “That sucks,” he finally said.

While yes, that sucks succinctly sums up the situation, I felt his response lacking in both nuance and extent, so I continued, “But what do you think about what I’ve just told you?”

“It’s horrific.”

I decided not to press him too hard at the time – after all, it was a lot to process – so I simply told him that he was ultimately going to have to express his emotions, that he couldn’t push everything down inside and let it fester. He agreed, and I left it at that. For now.

Talking to kids about a serious illness in the family – particularly when it’s a parent – is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s tough to find a balance between giving them too much information or too little. But it is, I think, critical. The experts I’ve read back me up on this.

In “How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness” by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn, they write:  “Probably the most difficult principle for well-meaning parents to follow, but the most central, is to tell children the truth, with the details adjusted to suit their ages. Parents…should always tell the children three things: that the mother or father is seriously ill, what the name of the disease is, and what the doctors say is likely to happen.”

Well, we’ve done that. We’ve been pretty open and honest with them from the beginning, even though our youngest was only 5 when his mother was first diagnosed. But I feel I’m flailing (and failing) a bit here. It’s one thing to read the excellent advice from, but it’s another putting it into practice.

So if any of you dear readers have been through – or are currently going through – a similar situation, please, please share your thoughts and comments. It’s important to know you’re not alone.



6 thoughts on “How Do You Talk to Your Kids When A Parent is Seriously Ill?

  1. Rebecca sent me this lovely email, and I thought I’d share it here. Thanks for this, my old friend. (And say ‘hi’ to Ben.)

    Hi Matt,

    I’m sorry to hear about the awful situation that you’re going through.

    As someone who found out her mother had terminal cancer at the age of 12, and passed away one year later, I thought I could share some thoughts from the child’s side.

    David is right, this situation is entirely yours, everyone’s circumstances and lives are different, so there is no “right” way of handling this. The only thing you can do is listen and take what you need. Accepting that you are doing the absolute best you can is definitely the way forward, and opens up space for a range of dialogue between you and your children.

    I don’t want to project what kind of reactions your sons will have to your actions/feelings, so I will just elaborate on how I felt at the time, particularly on how my father was reacting.

    My situation was probably very different – my parents living separately, with a lot of mental illness and general turmoil in the family. The cancer changed how we reacted to everything. It all happened quickly, and there was obviously a sense of time running out.

    In all honesty, by the time of the diagnosis, I couldn’t stand being around my mother. She was abusive and manipulative, but my father had raised me to understand that that was a result of her mental illness. After we found out, her negative habits became more frequent and powerful as the fear in her grew day by day.

    My father still feels guilty about what I went through, even though I have always been grateful for how he handled everything, and never once blamed anything on him. I don’t even blame anything on her. I did for a while. “How can she get into a situation where this would happen to her?” “Why didn’t she try more to get better mentally? Maybe this wouldn’t have happened then.” “What if this happens to me?”

    I think one of the things that made me feel safe and secure, even in this situation, is that my father also spoke about his feelings. He showed empathy towards me at all times and never expected me to feel any differently than I did. “I feel the same, Becky, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” “I feel angry, but I’m going to respond calmly. This is what is necessary now.” “I know you’re frustrated, I am too. It’s OK.”

    This was very grounding for me, I felt like I had barely any time to even keep up with what was happening. It was going quickly, and I was just starting to have the awareness that you gain when becoming a teenager. I felt that at least someone was there to guide me through my actions and to keep me mindful.

    My father also acknowledged what was genuinely helping me, rather than what “should” be helping me. I was surrounded by people who thought they knew better, and how I should be reacting to everything. This was infuriating and made me feel isolated. The people I stayed close to, were people who understood that feelings aren’t so simple and straight forward. My life wasn’t some shitty Hollywood movie they had gone to see the other week, and it wasn’t their business to correct it. I am allowed to have whatever feelings that come up, even if they seem weird and unusual. They weren’t weird or unusual, the rest of the world was just clueless. This is something my dad understood, and reinforced in me. “There’s nothing wrong with you. These people are stupid.”

    At some point my best friend and her mother waited until they were alone with me and told me I wasn’t being a good daughter to my mother. She wasn’t my best friend anymore. At some point she told me she thinks she will survive because my mum had put on a bit of weight. I told her that is not the case, and it’s just because of water retention as a result of her medication.

    “She won’t survive.”

    “Well, I think she will.”

    There was a brief moment of self doubt, “What if I’m a bad person for thinking that she will die? Shouldn’t I be more positive?” Again, I would’ve gone insane if my father wasn’t at home reminding me that the problem isn’t with me. He didn’t let the doubt grow in me.

    My actions and my behaviour was terrifying to my school, who again out of fear for not “doing the right thing” reacted destructively. During my mums illness, I had made a real friend, not like the earlier one. Someone I could completely share my feelings about everything with. The teachers at my school didn’t think I should be friends with him, and actively tried to prevent it. Even though he was given every reason to believe otherwise, my dad supported our friendship – he had a genuine sense of what was good for me.

    I think the thing that was unappreciated the most from my end at the time was people acting out of fear. I understand them now, although I still hold an underlying resentment towards them. Even at 13 I didn’t want people to act out of fear. I wanted people to face up to the reality, to see things for what they were.

    I remember when my dad told me he thought she wouldn’t survive. We were sitting in the car going shopping. The topic came up naturally. I think I said,

    “When is she going to get better?”

    “You know Becky, I don’t think mum is going to survive this.”

    “How long do you think it will be?”

    “I really don’t know. No one knows. But it could be 6 months to a year.”

    I don’t think I said anything, just continued to stare out the window. My body had a rush of chemicals going through it, not good or bad, just very intense. The same feeling as when I found out she died. I knew it was OK not to say anything with him. I didn’t feel pushed, and I appreciated it.

    A similar situation when she died. He had just gotten home at his usual time in the morning after his usual swim. I was getting ready for school. I remember feeling really sleepy. He walked into my room, I think he stayed standing.

    “Hi Dad,”


    “Have you just been swimming?”


    “Why not?”

    “Because mum died last night.”


    I can’t remember exactly what we said after that, but the conversation was brief. I stayed in my room alone, I was no longer sleepy. Completely numb. I had no idea what I was supposed to be feeling. Again an unconventional reaction to death, from both me and my father. But this is what felt right. There was no “we should sit here together because this has happened.” There was only our natural reaction.

    The most important thing for me during this period was to be around people who didn’t expect anything from me. Who just let me be myself in this situation. This seemed to be shockingly difficult for a lot of people. They were so terrified they had lost all sense of understanding.

    I don’t feel that this took away from my ability to express myself. I always expressed myself, to the people who gave me the space for it. To this day I have a special relationship with my father because he gave me that space.

    Again, I don’t want to give too much direct advice as our situations are different. The only thing I can suggest is speaking from your heart, your true self. Don’t think about what you’ve read too much when talking to your kids, or implement methods to let them express themselves. They will know which version of you is real. You can open up to them too, and they will follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t have any advice to add for your situation. I do know that helping our kids express their feelings usually brings me more luck if I offer more of a multiple choice than a fill-in-the-blank.
    “Does X make you feel Y? Or Z?” And also “You seem to feel Z right now. Does that sound right?”
    I think I would struggle to find the words myself as an adult to express what I can’t imagine your sons are going through. I’m sending you all strength and grace for these hard conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So moving, Matt! I can picture the whole scene. Seems to me that the most important thing is to keep some degree of information flowing. In the absence of information, kids will make up their own facts and analysis to try to make sense of it. They can’t be forced to talk, but they have to know they can turn to you when they need to, on their own terms.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Mat & Susan,
    Thank you for sharing one of the hardest experience’s any human being can face, be they seven or seventy.
    You both are expressing tremendous courage, wisdom, maturity and above all, agape love. I feel much sadness that a young family like yours must face these ultimate questions of life, death and separation. I always thought those question were reserved for the elderly – that with old age we got glimpses of those things in life only we should see – not the child or young adult. Only then would we have the stamina to face the anguish of loss and the pain of grief. But no, at 78 I have seen it all. Life presents risk for which there is no protection for any age. We take it as it presents itself…. and we face the real dilemma of life…that with every answer we come up with, it doubles the questions. Mat & Susan, you know you are loved and many will be with you through the different episodes of this journey. Some have experienced it already and can offer guidance – and others will learn from you. Ultimately, it is your journey, and yours alone. No other will share the same experience. May you run and not be weary. Love & Gratitude, Dave Kerr

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Matt, sending lots of love to you and yours! The most important thing I learned about addressing tough topics with our girls (who came to us as foster kids at ages 10 and 13) was that we needed to give them the vocabulary to express their feelings, and to normalize the whole range of thoughts and emotions they might be feeling. It’s human nature to hold back stuff you think might hurt the other person, so reassuring the boys that you love them no matter what they are feeling and can handle hearing about their negative thoughts might just help. Creating an image of some safe place to “store” difficult thoughts and feelings when they need to set them aside so they can function might be helpful, too. (Something along the lines of: “That’s a lot to handle right now, isn’t it? Let’s put these thoughts in our imaginary lock box for now so we can come back to them when we need to later…”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many students in the school where I work face horrible situations (parents dying, incarcerations, removal to foster care, etc) and your comments sum up the way the counselors help them address their issues.


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