We were having our weekly Pizza Picnic Party and movie, and my wife had chosen A Monster Calls, a “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?”
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 cancer.org, 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.