How children react to the news that a parent is dying will vary enormously. Having information about what is happening can really help children to feel they are involved and that everyone is going through this together. As a parent you may feel concerned about what information to give to your children at a time when you are coming to terms with your own or another family member's treatment needs and prognosis. Knowing what information to give and when to do so, can often feel like a minefield.
It is important to remember that at a time when your family is facing a crisis, your children will respond better if they have honest and accurate information which is child centred and aimed at their understanding.The thought of speaking openly and honestly about what is happening may feel wrong and insensitive but the benefits of doing so will have a lasting positive impact on family and friends.
Begin by asking what they already know; Often children will know a lot more than you think they do.They may have picked up bits of conversations which can make them feel confused, so having accurate information could help them feel less anxious. It will also give you a chance to correct any misunderstood information and provides a framework to give further information when needed.
Letting your children know you have something to talk about that might make them feel sad, angry or feel nothing at all and normalising their feelings is incredibly important. Let them know it is ok for everyone to cry and that this is normal. Equally, let them know that it is ok to feel happy too.
Keep information factual. Children respond better to 'black and white' facts such as 'the doctor said your mum's treatment is not making her better anymore, so they have now decided to stop'. Children will often be thinking the worst scenario – is their loved one going to die? If they have this question it needs to be answered and having this information from someone they love and trust will be important.This will be a difficult conversation so having family members or friends there to give support can be helpful. Keep your information to short sentences with lots of pauses for their questions.
Children will need time to process this information and you may need to talk this over again or revisit certain things to check what they have understood. Let them know that they are safe and loved and will be told any information when you know more. It is important that they know they can ask any questions and you will try and answer them if you can. If you don't know the answer to their questions, be honest and tell them you are not sure.
Expect concentration and behaviours to fluctuate.This can be very challenging for the whole family and you may feel like you are riding an emotional roller coaster. Having support is essential for the whole family, particularly school supports for children. Let school staff know that your child may need help when they are struggling but also that there will be days when they just want to do normal things. Keeping to normal routines within school and in the community will help children gain a sense of normality and will help them build on their resilience of coping with difficult times and their emotions.
This is a precious time when some families may wish to create special memories or, if possible, take trips or days out together. Helping children with memory activities together as a family helps them to keep memories well into the future. One of the most common things that is said after a loved one has died is that they have "forgotten the sound of their voice" or "what that person looked", like so creating videos or recordings of their loved one would prevent them forgetting what they sounded or looked like. Another idea could be to create a book/folder which told you all about the person who is dying including things such as favourite colour/food/book/music/film/what they were good at/where they were born etc etc.
At Mosaic, we have a team of specially trained counsellors who can help you through this difficult time. If you have any questions, please call 01258 837 071 to speak to one of our team.