When a family is hit with a serious illness — no matter who the family member — life as it was known gets turned upside down.
As director of Chai Lifeline Canada, a national organization that provides support to families of seriously ill children and parents, I see this first hand on a daily basis. Over my 13 years with the organization, here is what I have learned to be the best way to talk to kids about serious illness.
Always be honest. There’s no way around it — if little Johnny’s mother or sibling has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you as his parent have to tell him the truth about it. Making up stories or altering the facts may lead him to be angry, mistrustful or shocked in the future, especially if the outcome is not as hoped, or if he hears information second or third-hand from friends or relatives.
Share the news in an age-appropriate way, but always in a positive light. For example, if Johnny’s mother has cancer, don’t use the words “she’ll be fine,” since you don’t know for sure that this will be the case. Instead, say: “Mommy has cancer. It’s very serious, but we have a positive outlook that she’s going to be OK.”
If the child is younger, you may want to start by explaining what a hospital is and expressing that it’s a serious place, but emphasize that the doctors and nurses are giving everyone — including Mommy — medicine to help them get better. This way, the child understands the severity, yet is hopeful all will return to normal in time.
Dialogue is key. When dealing with a major life challenge, such as a sick sibling or parent, it’s critical to let kids express their emotions. As a parent, your job is to listen. It’s also your job to help the child maintain an optimistic attitude.
If Mommy is in the process of losing her hair or is feeling sick after chemotherapy, for example, talk to him about what his mother is going through and address the child’s fears or concerns. Validate his thoughts and then steer his outlook to one of hope.
It’s important to make your child feel supported by assuring him there are people outside of his immediate family who are there for him as well. Ensure friends, relatives and teachers are aware of the situation and show empathy, especially if a child acts out or demonstrates anger during this difficult time. There are also organizations, such as Chai Lifeline, that offer free counselling and family support programs, providing another channel for the child to express himself.
Quality time helps. Without a doubt, the day-to-day life of any child with a seriously sick family member will be affected, due to changing routines and household responsibilities, and everyone’s attention disproportionately turned to the ill person. During this time, as difficult as it may be to schedule it in, it’s critical to spend time with your child in a positive way.
Each week, choose a favourite activity to share — whether skating, going to a movie or even baking together at home — in order to maintain a sense of normalcy and create happy moments in the midst of the uncertainty. Give the child a boost, while simultaneously giving yourself respite, by taking advantage of the range of free support services offered by various organizations, such as after-school activities, Big Brother-Big Sister initiatives, family events and trips for kids with sick family members.
Not only will these programs help lift the child’s spirits, but they will also enable him to forge bonds with caring non-family members and other kids in similar situations, creating a welcome diversion and lifelong memories.
Mordechai Rothman is the executive director of Chai Lifeline Canada, a charity that helps support families of children who suffer from life-threatening or lifelong illnesses. The organization provides dozens of free initiatives to help give children stability and their families a sense of normalcy, including counselling, tutoring for children missing extended periods of school, family retreats, sibling programs similar to that of “Big Brother, Big Sister”