Balancing hope and honesty
Maintaining both hope and honesty is crucial at this time. Some parents believe that if they do not talk about the illness with their children, it will not touch them. However, if a parent cannot and does not acknowledge that they are ill, then they certainly cannot acknowledge the feelings, thoughts and responses that come with it. Many adults feel that as long as the experience is not given a name or discussed, children will go on with their lives as though nothing is happening.
Needing to know what’s going on
Children often surprise us with their capacity to absorb new experiences and difficult thoughts. Children need to understand that hope, fear, anger, sadness and intense love are all appropriate feelings when a person they care about is seriously ill. One mother decided not to tell her nine-year-old son that she had leukaemia. However, he overheard his father talking to a family friend on the phone. He was furious and upset at being excluded. This boy needed to know what was happening in order to make sense of the experience and his parents’ reactions. Being included in future conversations made him feel stronger and more involved.
Working through our own anxieties and discomfort
Our difficulty in talking with children often stems from our own anxieties and discomfort. Recognising your own fears, concerns and hopes for the future may be an important first step in feeling ready to involve your children. We all seek to be in control. To be in a place of uncertainty and to allow your children to join you in that place of uncertainty takes great courage.
It is important to recognise that we are looking at the rest of your children’s lives. If they are ‘protected’ from the truth, they will learn a lifelong lesson of distrust. There may be nothing more important in their lives than continuing to trust the people they love most – the parent who is sick and the parent or family who will continue to care for them.
If you have a partner, you may find that you have different approaches to discussing the illness and to involving the children in what is happening. Every family is unique and it helps to talk through the meaning of your illness at this particular time for your particular family. Non-talkers won’t magically transform into sharers. It will, however, be helpful to your children if you reach a point where you can both agree that the children should be involved – and to what extent.
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