Tag Archives: parenting with cancer


Talk to Kids about Cancer

How do you talk to kids about cancer?

It’s not always easy to talk to kids about cancer (especially when it’s their mom or dad who has it). But it is important. One of the things that can make it hard to talk to kids about cancer is that they often keep their feelings hidden. One reason why they do this may surprise you.

Protecting their ParentsTalking to kids about cancer

As kids grow, they become more aware that their parents have fears and feelings of their own. When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, kids will try to ease their mom and dad’s stress by keeping their own worries to themselves. It’s their way of protecting their parents.

Unfortunately, this can cause a child’s imagination to run wild. They can end up thinking things are even worse than they are. And, that’s hard to do when you are dealing with cancer.

 

“Horriblizing”

A friend of ours has a perfect phrase for this. He calls it horribleizing. We horribleize things when we don’t have all the facts and our mind leaps to the worst possible outcome. Adults are great at this. Kids are even better!

The best way you can prevent this is by communicating well with your child. That doesn’t mean you have to tell them all the details. In fact, you shouldn’t. But, you do need to give them the information they want in honest, but broad terms. How do we do that when they aren’t expressing their concerns?

You might be surprised by how easy it can be to talk to kids about cancer.

  • Turn off the TV and other distractions. Talk to your child when it’s just the two of you. They will be far more likely to let down their guard when they don’t feel like a sibling will laugh at them or another parent will get upset. If you need to, take them out for lunch. People talk when they eat. It’s their social instinct. It’s much easier to talk to kids about cancer while eating an ice cream sundae.
  • Start by asking, “What kind of feelings/thoughts are you having about this?” or, “Are you feeling a little scared?”
  • When talking to your children, avoid giving them a worst-case scenario because they will grab it every time. For example, you wouldn’t ask your child, “Are you afraid that I’m going to die?” While they likely are, it’s far better to bring it out in a gentler way, such as asking, “What kind of things are you afraid of?”
  • Ask your child what questions they have. This is open-ended, but still, requires an answer.
  • The conversation doesn’t need to end after you answer one question. Your child might just be starting to open up to you. Follow up by asking, “Do you have any other questions?”
  • Medical play is a great way to talk to kids about cancer. It alleviates the fear of the unknown, by introducing some of the tools doctors use that might seem frightening at first.

Talk to Kids about Cancer

Here are some more tips for finding out what’s on their mind:

  • You might worry that when you talk to kids about cancer, it will make them think about frightening things. The truth is, they’re already thinking these things. Talking will bring their ideas and fears to the surface where you can examine them in the open, together.
  • Say, “I recently read that some children feel . What you think about that?” I did this once and was amazed by the answers my children gave me. For the first time, I learned many of their fears. It helped me to communicate with them and be sensitive to the things they felt most deeply.
  • Don’t push. Let them tell you what’s on their mind in a way and time that is comfortable for them.
  • Sometimes, doing an activity like coloring helps kids to open up. Their conscious mind in concentrating on the relaxing activity, allowing their subconscious thoughts to come to the surface. Make this a light conversation from which you can glean their thoughts about what’s happening.

Empathize

Often, once a child knows about their parent’s diagnosis, each appointment will bring a measure of anxiety. This can be a teachable moment for your child. You can start by talking about your own anxieties, in a way that can encourage a calm, soothing conversation. Validating your child’s feelings can be so empowering for them. When they’re allowed to express them, you’re essentially saying, “Yes I’m sure you’re worried and that’s okay. I’m worried too.”

Here are some other things you can say

“Today I’m going in for a special test that will let the doctors know how I’m doing. I’m wondering if you might have any concerns about this.”

“I know that I’m a little worried, so I thought you might be worried too. Should we talk about our fears and worries?”

“I’m going to go to the doctor to put together a plan. We’ll figure this out together. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

“We’re walking side-by-side in this. I want to take care of you too”

This can be very reassuring for your child. It will often ease their concerns since they can trust that you won’t keep them in the dark. They can, in a sense, put their fears on a shelf. They’re still there, but they’re in their place.

Talk to Kids About Cancer

What to Avoid

What you’ll really want to avoid are the curt, dismissive assurances that people often give.

Some examples of phrases to avoid are:

“Your Mom will get better soon.”

“Don’t worry everything will be all right.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.”

What Not to Avoid

No parent wants to have this difficult conversation with their children. It can be tempting to try to brush the whole thing off as no big deal. Whatever you do: Avoid avoiding.

It’s also HOW you say it

People tend to speak rapidly when they’re nervous. They get repetitive when they feel anxious.  “Fast paced, repetitive responses never dig into the nitty-gritty of the truth and can make a child feel completely dismissed. Dismissive comments reinforce the idea that cancer is taboo and that we shouldn’t talk about it.

“This can leave them thinking, “I shouldn’t ask my mom and dad questions. I should protect them. can be a role reversal, where the mom and dad want to protect their children and the children want to protect their mom and dad.” (Melissa Turgeon)

A Better Way

Instead, a healthier way to talk to kids about cancer is to ask, “How much do you want to know? Do you want to know it all, or are you the type of kid that just wants the facts?” Asking this question, you’ll hear from the child what they want to know. “You can ask the child who wants to know everything, “Do you want to come to the clinic appointment with me?” Sometimes your child will say, “No, just give me the basic facts of what is going on.” Other times they’ll say, “I’m going to be a doctor when I get older.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

 

Originally posted 2018-03-26 07:00:58.


Grief in Children

This past month, I’ve been working on getting my upcoming book Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Child Cope With Your Cancer, published. At the same time, we have been trying to navigate our children through yet another setback in their dad’s cancer journey. There is a section of the book which focuses on grief in children. Because of what we are going through, this section of the book was especially difficult to write and edit. It was also especially important.

What is Grief?

“You may associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief, including the loss of a relationship, your health, your job, or a cherished dream.” (Help Pages.org Grief and Loss)

Most people think that grief is something that they’ll deal with when someone they love dies. In truth, the process of grieving begins at the moment you realize you of a loved one has cancer. This is a huge shift in your life when the story you pictured for yourself changes. The outcome may not look anything like you’d hoped or imagined.

“Life will never be the same. You can never go back to that day before the clinic visit when you learned you had cancer.” -Melissa Turgeon, child life specialist with the Angel Foundation.

When a family learns that a parent has cancer, everyone’s routine changes. Some people are surprised when they see grief in children. Consider that there are some very practical losses your child will experience or anticipate, such as:

  • A very active and involved parent can suddenly become ill and need to sit on the sidelines.
  • A caregiving parent may suddenly devote all of their time to the patient-parent, leaving the kids with a sense of loss.
  • Our 18-year-old developed a keen awareness that it was unlikely her dad would ever walk her down the aisle or hold her babies.

Did that last one surprise you?

Brain development continues until children reach the age of 26. Unfortunately, grief in children ages 18-26 is often unrecognized. Grief in children looks different depending on the age and stage, as well as the personality of the child. Often, grief in children is manifested by physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. In fact, these signs may even be more prevalent than tears or anger.

It’s important to acknowledge the deep and profound loss each member of the family is experiencing. How this looks will be different for each person.

 

It’s easy to misinterpret the symptoms of childhood grief. While grief is as individual and unique at the person who experiences it, there are some common reactions and behaviors that are often seen in grieving youth.

Signs and symptoms of Grief in Children :

  • Physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Lack of emotions (even about the death)
  • Separation anxiety
  • Feeling protective of parent and/or family members
  • Worrying about the safety of loved ones
  • Feeling responsible for the death (thinks that in some way he or she caused the death)
  • A change in behavior at school
  • Falling grades, hard time concentrating or paying attention, seems to “daydream” more
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in appetite
  • Regressing (acting younger than they are)
  • Acting overly responsible for their age
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in friends and usual activities, even pushing away old friends
  • Worrying about another death occurring even their own death

A Different Schedule

Research has shown that grief in children and teens also happens on a different schedule than in adults. Because they don’t have the same cognitive capacity as adults, they can’t maintain a deep level of grief to the extent that adults do. Instead, children will show their grief off-and-on, in waves, over a period of many years. As a child grows older, grief will bubble up at different periods in life. When they reach new developmental stages or important milestones such as first dates, graduations, proms, and birthdays, the grief will rise again.

Seeking out youth grief services early on in a parent’s cancer journey can be very helpful. At this time, the support system that you’ve assembled, including professionals, family, and friends will be essential to ensuring your entire family is able to process their grief and continue to live despite the pain each person is feeling.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

 

 

 

Originally posted 2018-03-12 07:00:01.


talk to children about cancer

It’s important to talk to children about cancer-even with a “bleak” prognosis. My husband, Dan was stage IV, metastatic, when he was diagnosed. So, we have always been told that his cancer was terminal and that we were buying time. The best we could hope for was that he would be labeled NED, No Evidence of Disease (like remission). It’s especially difficult to talk to children about cancer when you are given such a bleak prognosis.

Our Story

One year into his treatment plan, Dan was declared NED (having no evidence of disease). This is a term used to describe what people think of as a state of remission in certain types of cancer. It means that the cancer is still there, it’s just too small to be seen on a scan.

It’s a wonderful feeling to be NED, even though we’d been told that it was only temporary and that at some point Dan’s cancer would rear its ugly head again. One thing that surprised me was how uneasy I felt, even during that time. The first thing that bothered me was that his scans were now farther apart. Instead of being every 6 weeks, they were every 3 months. What if cancer began to progress just after a scan, and rather than it growing, unchecked, for 6 weeks, it had 3 months to multiply? That question plagued me.

We were counting on God to give us the time we needed as a family, and we were counting on people to pray for us, so I also feared that because Dan was doing well, people would forget that we still needed prayer.

Our kids worried too.

In the back of their mind was always the list of “what-ifs.” It was especially bad just before a scan.

  • What had happened since the last scan?
  • Will we be able to stay the course, or will we suddenly have to learn about a new treatment?
  • What will be the new side-effects?
  • Will we have a new schedule, dictated by the chemo schedule?
  • Will there be another option when this one runs out–because it always stops working at some point.

How to talk to children about cancer:

Young Children

While most young children, will be able to quickly move beyond the cancer once treatment is done and you are feeling better, some children worry more than others and may need continued support. In these cases it is especially important to use care as you talk to children about cancer, giving them the reassurance they need, while still being honest.

Teens

Teens may avoid talking openly about their fears or concerns. They often feel a need to protect their parent by keeping their fears to themselves. It is often easier for teens to discuss their fears with someone outside the family. You can see if they would like you to help set that up with an adult they trust or can feel at ease talking to.
Kids tend to see things just as they are. Once you complete your treatment, life goes back to normal and you begin to look like your “old self” again, they’ll probably think that the illness is over. While you might want to tell your children that everything will be fine, it’s best to let some time pass before you give them any assurances, because unfortunately, cancer can recur or metastasize (spread to another part of the body).

Honesty is the Best Policy

  • Be honest about your feelings, with yourself and with your kids. They may be experiencing some of the same feelings that you are. Be honest about the fact that if the cancer returns, it will mean more treatment, of some sort.
  • During this time, you can–and should be happy.
  • There’s plenty to be happy about, and you can share those things together. Maybe you’re looking forward to not feeling nauseous anymore. If you lost your hair due to treatment, you can enjoy seeing it return (maybe even different from before).
  • Enjoy the moment, even if you don’t know what to expect in the future.

The Goal…

For people who have an “incurable” cancer, time is the goal, more time to spend doing the things God had called you to in this life, spending time with family and friends, leaving your mark. Remission, NED, stable disease, they are all good, but they are also another place in the timeline when cancer patients and their loved ones take a deep breath that they will hold a while longer. Talk to children about cancer-even if things look bleak.

In our case, we had reason to hope, even though, medically, it looked hopeless. Our hope was in the Lord, Jesus Christ. He’s been our strength throughout this journey. I’m glad we did hope because we’ve had 4 amazing years of memories, to date, that we might’ve otherwise missed.

 Just Released!!

Facing Cancer as a Parent:

Helping your Children Cope with your Cancer

What Are YOUR Thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

Originally posted 2018-06-25 07:00:50.


Faith and Cancer

Your children are developing their own sense of self, and their own personal faith. When a parent has cancer, their faith often goes through a period of questioning. How could God allow their mom or dad to have cancer? Where is God in all of this? Is God punishing them? We are often confronted with the question of why bad things happen to good people. People believe many different answers to this question, even within the Christian faith.

Faith, itself is born out of questions.

In the Bible, Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Questions are a matter of not being able to see the end of the tunnel. Faith is what keeps you moving, even in the darkness, believing that eventually, you will reach the light. Faith can make all the difference in getting through life and its challenges. It grounds you, comforts you, and gives you a sense of community support.

Our Daughter, Sam

For the first 3 years of my husband’s cancer, it appeared that our daughter, Sam, either had unshakable faith or enormous naiveté. She was unflappable in her confidence that God would take care of us and that everything would work out. More recently I asked her about it since she was much older and could express her thoughts more clearly. She said, “I always knew that Dad could die, but I also knew that God would take care of us, even if that happened.” I knew then, that it was faith

Of course, having that kind of faith doesn’t necessarily spare someone fear, sadness, frustration, or any of the other many feelings surrounding a loved one’s illness. Recently, my husband was going to California to visit our adult daughter, her husband, and children.  Sam had an awful nightmare, the night before. As a result, she had a total meltdown. In tears, she told Dan that she’d dreamed he didn’t come back from California and that we’d never see him again. She asked him not to go. The reality is that the dream was really a manifestation of her fears about losing Dan to cancer. Thankfully, he was able to comfort and assure her that everything would be okay. He had a good trip and did return to us, safe and sound.

Your Child's Faith

What do YOU believe?

What are your beliefs about this question of why bad things happen to good people? In particular, why do good people get cancer? Is it a punishment for past mistakes or sins? Maybe a testing God allows, like in the book of Job? Is cancer a random event? Your answers to these questions are a reflection of your beliefs and who you are. It’s likely that your children are very aware of these things and have many similar responses to something as earth-shaking as cancer.

Children’s brains don’t fully develop until age 25

This is why it often takes that long before they really get their act together. It also makes it more difficult for them to reconcile their experience as a child of a cancer patient, with what they have always been told or believed about God.

What if you haven’t told your kids how you feel about matters of faith and God. If that’s the case, it’s likely that you’re wrestling with some of these same questions, and that your children won’t have a clear basis for their ideas on faith. It’s okay to tell your children that you’re struggling with what to believe. Again, this is coming from a place of honesty and trust. At that point, it’s essential that you begin to explore these things for your own spiritual well-being.

Your childs faith and your cancerGetting Help

At times like these, it can be a good idea to reach out for advice and help, for yourself and your children. Talk to a trusted pastor or a friend with a faith that you admire and feel you could connect with. They may be able to listen and explain things to you and/or your child.

One word of caution

Often, well-meaning people will tell a child who has lost a parent, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” This can be very destructive to a child’s image of God, turning Him into the one who took their parent away. It’s better to say, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.”

My Experience

For a long time, I struggled with the question of why my husband would have cancer. It seemed so unfair. I wasn’t angry with God, but what we were going through wasn’t lining up with how I believed the world worked. What helped me come to terms with my husband’s cancer, was faith.  Like my daughter, Sam, I had to trust that things would be okay. That didn’t mean that they would be the way I thought they should be, but that God would have His hand on us through this.

Above all, I take comfort in knowing that when my husband does die, whether it is in 6 months, a year, or 20 years, he’ll be in the very presence of Jesus Christ. For us as believers, there is nothing better than that. So, as hard as this journey is, I will rejoice for him on that day.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

Originally posted 2018-02-26 07:00:13.


Daisy Letters

Do you have a child in your life in need of encouragement? There’s a young girl in England who would love to help by sending one of her Daisy Letters!

How Daisy Letters Began

Beginning at the age of 6 months old, Leanna spent much of her life in the hospital, fighting cancer twice. Her response to her personal trials was to help other kids who were facing difficult circumstances. She began the non-profit, Daisy Letters, with the goal of brightening up the day of the children who are going through tough times.

Leanna does something rarely done anymore.

She sends handwritten letters of encouragement. The effect is amazing! Anyone can nominate a child or teen, between the ages 0-19 years to receive one of Leanna’s Daisy Letters. When I heard of Daisy Letters, I went to Leanna’s site and nominated our daughter, Emily. Emily was really struggling with what was happening with her dad’s cancer. Having Asperger’s only added to the difficulty of expressing her emotions in a healthy way. I could see that she was very sad, but I didn’t know how to reach her. I filled in the online forms explaining why Emily could use a dose of encouragement. A few weeks later, a letter arrived from the UK. Emily looked at it with wonderment. Who could have sent it?

A few weeks later…

a letter arrived from the UK. Emily looked at it with wonderment. Emily wondered, “Who could have sent it?” as she examined the letter with international postage. I don’t know what Leanna wrote, but it meant a lot to Emily. She had an extra bounce in her step after that. She still has the letter sent across the sea, by another girl her age, who she has never met, but who cared enough to write.

Leanna says, (in her beautiful British accent) “I know how hard it can be struggling with illnesses, or being in hospital for long periods of time, or having a bad day where life is tough. I would have loved to receive a letter to encourage me, and so I want to be able to do this for other children and teenagers. A handwritten, personal letter can mean so much to the recipient, and with words of strength, encouragement, and care, I want to bring a smile to people’s faces and hopefully brighten up their day.”

She is certainly succeeding!

If your child, or a child you know could use that kind of encouragement, go to the Daisy Letters website to nominate them. If you’d like to help Leanna, you can donate stationery, envelopes, or money to be put towards stamps, and ink cartridges. Send her a message in the reply section on her site, letting her know you would like to help. She will respond, letting you know the best place to send your donation.

Sometimes it’s good to take a “digital break.”

That’s what I’m going to be doing in the month of January. I’ve noticed that I’m not getting as much writing done as I should be, so rather than spending time on email, social media, and other online activities; I will be writing and reconnecting with my goals for 2018. You will still see weekly blog posts on Facing Cancer with Grace, because I have already written them and will post them automatically, using a scheduler. Even though I may not respond to your comments right away, I will read them and appreciate them greatly. Since I won’t be sharing my posts to social media in January I would appreciate it if those of you who use social media would share my posts. Thank you!

What are YOUR thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

Originally posted 2018-01-29 07:00:59.


Understand Death

I’m doing double duty this month during the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Here at Facing Cancer with Grace, I will focus on caregiving. I’ll also be doing the challenge at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker, where I will share ways to increase your creativity. I hope you’ll visit me at both sites. While you’re here, sign up for my email list. Today’s post is K for How Kids Understand Death. This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping your Child Cope with Your Cancer.

In a recent post, we looked at Grief in Children from the viewpoint that grieving begins with a loss. It’s important to understand death isn’t the only thing reason we grieve. Unfortunately, for many families, the cancer journey does end in death. What you see in your child as they cope with death will depend largely on their age and how they understand death.

Infants, up to 2 years old

Infants won’t understand death at all, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by it. They know that the parent they loved is no longer there. You may even see an older infant looking for their “missing” parent. Even more than the absence of their parent, infants are affected by the sadness of their surviving parent.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as an infant up to 2 years old:

  • increased crying
  • irritability
  • changes in sleeping habits.
  • changes in eating habits

Preschool-age children (3 to 6 years)

Children ages 3-6 are curious about death, but they don’t understand death as a permanent condition. It’s common for them to think that someone who’s died is in a state similar to sleep. They may believe it’s reversible and that their parent will wake up. They might even think that if they’re good enough, they can make the person who died come back.

Children tend to center the death (like everything else) on themselves. If they have ever wished their parent would go away or had been “bad,” they may feel guilty and responsible for their parent’s death. It’s very difficult for children this age to put their feelings into words.

As you would expect, children who lose a parent are apt to worry about who will take care of them. They may question whether their other family members are safe, or if one day, they too will die, leaving the child behind. And, like children younger than them, they’re very affected by the sadness of surviving family members.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as a preschooler:

  • symptoms of regression
  • bed-wetting
  • thumb-sucking
  • acting out in aggression
  • irritability
  • difficulty sleeping

Our Story

I met, fell in love with, and married Dan when my daughters were young. before that, I was married to my children’s biological father. He left us, After that, for weeks, one of my daughters kept saying he had been shot. No matter what I said to try to convince her otherwise, she thought he had died. I took them to our pastor who began to talk to them and asked them questions. He asked her why she thought that he was dead. She said, “It’s like in Narnia. The dad went to war and was shot. The children were sad and the mom cried all the time.” My daughters didn’t understand what divorce was but they had seen in a movie, something that resonated with how they were feeling. They drew their own conclusions from that. This taught me a big lesson about children’s perceptions. This taught me a big lesson about children’s perceptions.

Be aware that your young child may not understand death accurately. Asking gentle questions can be very illuminating.

School-age children (6 to 12 years)

By the time your child reaches the ages of 6-12, they understand death is final. As they get older, they’ll understand death is unavoidable and happens to everyone at some point. Death itself is often perceived by children this age, symbolically, such as a skeleton, the Grim Reaper, or a more religious manifestation, such as an angel or spirit. Children this age will still struggle to talk about their feelings.

They will experience many emotions including guilt and shame, since they may worry that they’re to blame for their loved one’s death. They may also feel anger and sadness. And, most likely, they’ll experience anxiety and fear about their future and even their own death. They’re still likely to worry about who will take care of them. This can bring about feelings of insecurity, clingy behavior.

Children this age are often interested in the specific details of death and what happens to the body after death. This can even be seen when a pet dies. Far from being gruesome, the child may want to see the dead pet and know more clearly what has happened. While adults may feel uncomfortable with this, it’s quite natural, and a part of coming to terms with the death. For this reason, you shouldn’t be overly concerned if the child wants to see or touch their deceased parent.

What you can expect to see from your child as they cope with death as a school-aged child, 6-12 years old:

  • symptoms that their younger counterparts experience
  • trouble in school
  • withdrawal from friends and/or family

Our Story

When our kids were younger, they had a pet betta fish. After about 6 months, Huckleberry did what all fish eventually do, and died. I was concerned that it would upset the kids, so I tossed the fish into the brush outside of our home.

Our daughter became frantic at seeing the empty fish bowl. She cried and cried, demanding to see her little Huckleberry. Finally, I relented and told her where he was. She rushed out in her bare feet, searching through the leaves and branches. Finally, she found him. She looked at him for a few minutes in silence and then returned as calm as could be. She wiped her eyes and returned to playing.

Teenagers (13 to 18 years)

While most teenagers understand death in like adults do, when it comes to death, they don’t behave like an adult. They’ll experience a range of emotions, and don’t have the depth of experience or the coping skills needed to handle them. Teens don’t tend to ask for help. Instead, you’ll need to recognize that they’re struggling.

Signs to watch for in your child as they cope with death as a teenager, include:

  • Lashing out at family members or friends.
  • Reckless and/or impulsive behavior
  • Substance use/abuse
  • Promiscuity.
  • Questioning God, their faith, and/or their understanding of the world
  • Withdrawing from the family to be alone
  • Spending more time with friends (not always a bad thing, but can be an indicator that they are having difficulty dealing with what’s happening)

Because they want to feel independent, teens sometimes want to emotionally and physically separate from their family. They may not be receptive to support from adult family members. It can be helpful to enlist the help of other adults who can help identify when a problem is occurring. Communicate regularly with their teachers, coaches, and pastors who can help during this time.

College Age

Despite being considered legal adults, college-aged children are still developing emotionally. Their brain isn’t fully formed until they are 25 years old. To make matters even more complicated, these are the years when many of them are in college or starting their career. Whether they live on campus, commute, or have decided to work full time, they have a lot that they are juggling.

Thankfully, many colleges have academic and crisis counselors on staff. Students should contact them early on to see what options they have regarding their classes, should a crisis such as the death of a parent, arise. Some schools even offer tuition insurance for a medical crisis. Check with the school to find out details, including any potential issues with their scholarships. Make sure any insurance you purchase will cover the any needed time off from school for your child as they cope with death.

Our daughter, Summer

Summer and Dan August 2016
Photo by Jim Bovin

Our oldest daughter, Summer had already completed 2 years of college by the time she was 18 through a

program the State of Minnesota has known as Post Secondary Options (PSEO). She then transferred to the University of St. Thomas where she would get her 4-year degree.

We knew that during her time there, it was likely her dad would die. How would she cope with that? It’s one thing to deal with the pressures of college when you have a sick parent. It’s a whole other matter to try to focus on an intensive time of studies when your parent dies.

Summer spoke with her academic counselor as well as the student counselor who deals with issues such as grief. She began to assemble her support system at school.

School can be a welcome escape for your child as they cope with death. Or, it can add to the overwhelming feelings they may be experiencing. How your child deals with the loss of a parent will be as individual as he or she is.

Helping your child cope with and understand death

It’s common for surviving parents, family members and friends to worry about how their grief will affect the kids. They worry that their children will be damaged by their own intense feelings about the loss. Because of this, some adults will try to hide their emotions while around children. This is unnecessary and can be harmful in the long run—for everyone.

Children look for cues from adults for how to react to what’s happening around them. There’s nothing wrong with crying or other expressions of intense feelings after a loved one’s death. These are normal expressions of how people feel when they lose someone important to them.

The way you, and others, react to your child as they cope with death through the mourning process, will send a message to them, whether you intend to or not. For example. Telling a child not to cry, can cause them to feel like their feelings are wrong. This denies them the opportunity to work through the variety of emotions they are feeling, related to the loss.

Don’t try to hide your feelings

If family members and friends try too hard to hide their feelings, the child may think it’s wrong to be open about their own feelings. Instead of being able to share their feelings and get the needed support, the child keeps it inside and doubts the validity of their feelings.

Genuine feelings of sadness, tears, and anger are normal reactions for anyone who’s grieving. While acting hysterical may frighten a child, as long as their security needs are being met, seeing your grief being expressed won’t damage them.

In the same way, telling them that they should be more upset can cause him or her to feel guilty. It implies they are a bad person for not responding to the loss “appropriately.” Sometimes, outward displays of grief are delayed, or even suppressed due to mixed signals they’ve gotten in the past about whether or not it’s okay to cry. It’s important that your children understand death is a painful loss and it’s okay to respond to it in a way that feels authentic.

Resources

I’m in the early stages of putting together a resource page for caregivers of cancer patients. I’d love it if you’d check it out and email me any suggestions of resources you’d recommend. While you’re here, sign up for my email list to get a periodic email newsletter to encourage you on your cancer journey.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

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ABOUT HEATHER ERICKSON

In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

 

Originally posted 2018-04-12 07:00:34.

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