Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How do I broach death with my kid

With all the goings on of late, the fellow in this photo is the No. 1 person I worry about.

Yesterday, my husband and I are took wee man to kindergarten orientation. I have all the normal fears about my child starting school, and then some.

On Monday, I had the chance to hash out these fears with a family counsellor at the cancer agency, and I'm grateful for that. My fears:
  • Another child who has lost someone to cancer will tell my child I'm going to die.
  • My child will act out because of frustration, making his first year of big-kid school not so fun.

The basis of my fears

There are a couple of reasons I'm worried about these particular points, especially the first one.

I have been warned by other parents who have gone through cancer treatments that kids can come home with misinformation from their peers.

My husband and I have kept our language simple and straight-forward when explaining my surgery and treatment to our son. However, this is his first experience with cancer. He knows my mother-in-law was sick, her lungs didn't work properly, and she died before mommy and daddy got married. But he doesn't know that she had cancer.

My sister, on the other hand, has the opposite challenge. My nephew, who is a year-and-a-half older than my son, knows people who have died of cancer. So my sister has been avoiding using the word when describing what's going on with me, out of concern he'll be upset because until now, for him cancer = death.

Time to tackle my fears

The counsellor and I talked about preparing my son by talking to him about what my cancer means, and what it doesn't - namely that I'm strong, I'm young, and my doctors are doing everything they can to help make sure it doesn't come back. 

Which sounds great in theory. But this brings up another fear, the unspeakable for everyone around me: what if we're all wrong? What if it does come back, and my son feels lied to?

This is one of those posts where I don't really have any clever quips to make me or anyone else feel better.


  1. I cannot believe the sheer amount of things you have to deal with that aren't even directly the actual cancer. I thought about how this would all be hard for M but not about him hearing information from others, or how you approach it. It's a delicate balance. I believe you must be honest with him but he's still a child and obviously has to try to comprehend it all, and I know you want him to still get to enjoy life as a kid as much as possible.

    I have no real advice, how could I? If it were me, I think it's important to be honest and not to completely ignore the possibility you could be wrong. I think it's how you phrase it. It's important he know that even through all the work and treatment, you could be sick again. I don't know if you need to tell him you could die, I think just set the expectation that with cancer, there is no finality. That while you will fight with everything you've got, some things are out of your control. And should anything like that happen, then you can move forward with how to have THAT discussion. He won't feel lied to, you didn't promise him you'd be 100%, but then he doesn't assume the worst either. Maybe?

    There is so much for you to think about. I cannot believe it. I am so glad there are family counselors available to you right now.

    1. I'm going to be talking to an art therapist who works at the agency who does a lot of work with children. It's really challenging to balance honesty with not giving him too much information that hopefully will never apply to me.

  2. my two cents:
    First, I have never had kancer, have no idea what inside your head is like.. but this is my two cents..
    on being AROUND cancer all day long.
    First of all your son is 5, he's 5 past happy years/ knowledge of life is all he has.. death and dying are not subjects that kids know how to deal with at this age, they don't have the life experience to understand it, as it's happening, much less look ahead at the possibility of it...
    In my head.. looking into the crystal ball of "what will happen if this fucker comes back" is not a good thing.. although I get that it has to worry and occupy your thoughts.. but Lori.. that is wasted time.. unless you are dealing with the situation.. looking ahead to chaos.. is wasted time.. like me wondering why this particular boy did not dig me.. and if he will dig me next week when I'm 3 lbs thinner.. u know..wasted time.. (not that I do this.. 0_o)
    So.. what I'm saying is..
    If this fucking beast should come to find you down the road, THEN you can think about what to tell the boy.. how to bring it up.. THEN.. not now.. now you need to FUCK KANCER!
    Not lying to your son, means not predicting the future.. if he asks, say you don't know.. because you don't know.. that is the best you can do.. I think preparing him for what MAY (aka WILL NOT HAPPEN) is not necessary at this point..
    Fight the dragons in your body, and smile at victory ahead.
    my two cents.

    1. True, worry can eat away at me, causing stress which is something I don't need more of at the moment. And can I say I really love that last bit you said, "Fight the dragons in your body, and smile at the victory ahead." That's pretty awesome.

  3. Lori thanks for sharing these thoughts and feelings. Today your potential death from cancer is only a statistical probability based on a large sample of different individuals (none of whom are exactly like you anyway). As far as anyone knows, you're cancer free and you're getting treatment to make sure, and you have every reason to hope for and expect many more years of life. So I don't see any lying going on. But your post, for me, is a reminder to all of us parents with younger kids that we should be prepared because we all could die prematurely while our kids are still growing up. I've thought about this a lot: what if I died suddenly from a car accident? What if I went for a run and died from a heart attack? I especially worry about sudden death and not having a chance to say goodbye. So I do have an up-to-date will as well as up-to-date life, disability and critical illness insurance. And as another kind of insurance in case I die suddenly, I've written letters to each of my two kids, which I update roughly annually. These letters say everything I would want to say to my kids if I knew I was going to die. I tell them how much I love them, why I love them, why I'm proud of them, why they're special, and all the amazing possibilities that I see for them as they grow up. Words from the heart, not didactic advice. I remind them not to feel sorry for me, that even though I would have liked to stick around longer, that my life was happy and rich, mainly from having them in my life. It was very difficult to write these letters, but I feel much more at peace from having them. --Sean Kelly

    1. Sean, you are bang-on about statistics, and it's good to be reminded that only I am me. I think the letters to your children are an excellent idea (as are the insurance and will, of course). I really like it, and I think I will borrow that from you. Thank you.