Supporting children when a parent is terminal
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
This can be a tough subject to read about. I invite you to sit outside and breathe in the fresh air. Take your time.
There is nothing about this tragic situation that is easy. Every family and their circumstances will be different. Following are some suggested ideas for parents, grandparents and carers which might be beneficial. None of them take away the pain but they might help ease some stress before and after the death.
As excruciatingly difficult as it is, let your child know the truth, using words like 'death' and 'dying'. Young children especially can get very confused and frightened when adults use words such as 'pass away' or 'going to sleep' to explain death. This can sometimes lead to young children not wanting to go to bed or sleep.
Ask the hospital social worker or palliative care staff for information to help explain the illness or condition to children. They may possibly do this for you but it is helpful for you to still be present so you know what they were told. Chances are, your child will ask you a number of times. This is a normal part of processing the situation.
If the parent is dying as a result of an illness such as cancer, useful information can be obtained from Canteen and The Cancer Council.
As your loved one's condition progresses and physical or mental changes occur, visit them before the child does so you can let the child know of the changes before they visit. Also let them know what they will see if there is medical equipment attached to their parent.
Let your child know they can ask whatever questions they need to. It is normal for children to ask nothing. It is also normal for them to ask lots of questions, often the same ones repeatedly. Before answering, take a breath and think about how you can answer. It's also ok to say you don't know the answer and acknowledge not knowing is also painful.
Building a Support Network
Inform the school/s or preschools. Let the child/ren know you are doing this and ask them if there is anything they want the teacher to know or not know. EG: A child might have a secret hand signal that indicates to the teacher they need a 5 min break to get some water. Some children might be happy for the teacher to know what's going on but don't want the teacher to talk to them about it or treat them any differently.
Most schools have a school counsellor and/or pastoral wellbeing teacher. It can be useful for these people to know so the child has someone to go to when at school if they need or want to. Alternatively, you and your child can connect with an external counsellor such as Jo from Natural Growth Childhood Counselling.
Accept help from friends, family and the community. What help is beneficial will vary from week to week and within each family. It might include taking the children to and from school or sport; cooking; cleaning; gardening; or even having a hot take-away coffee ready and waiting for you as you drop the children to school before heading off to the hospital.
Offers of help can also be overwhelming. You might prefer a good friend or family member to be the coordinator and 'go-between' for this. You might like to look at Gather my Crew to help with this.
If possible, allow the children to continue with their usual sport and after-school activities, even if they need to cut back on all but one thing. Continuing these activities allows for some normality, respite for your child and continued connection with their friends.
A Few Ideas for Creating Memories and Connections
Create or buy a memory album for each child for their parent to contribute to either on their own or with the child. EG 'My mum in her own words'.
Do things together depending on what is possible - craft activities, cooking, visit places, play a board game, watch a movie. Take photos and videos of these experiences and connections.
Record a biography - audio, video or written. Maybe the child would like to be the interviewer or have some questions written down.
Have a family photo shoot.
Some people like to plant a tree in memory of a loved one. Another option is to buy a pot for each child and family member and plant it with some annual flowers in the loved one's favourite colour or some vegetables that need to be nurtured and renewed periodically. (I like the idea of a pot because if the child moves house, it can still come too).
If possible, discuss with your loved one any requests they might have regarding their funeral, memorial, burial or cremation. They might even be able to write this for you. You might worry this is a conversation that indicates you have given up. Not so. It is a conversation that is useful for all adults to have, regardless of their health, and removes some of the stress when the time inevitably arrives.
When the time comes, let your child know what the funeral will be like ahead of time. Let them know what they will see, including that adults are likely to be crying but this is ok.
Are there any things your loved one does that you will need to know details or passwords of to access? EG: banking, mortgage / rent, automatic payments, computer passwords.
However you are feeling during this time is ok.
The situation is not ok and you would like for it to be very different. But your feelings are ok.
Reach out for support and allow others to reach in to you.