Annie, from our South West Family Services Team, explores ways in which you can prepare for the death of a parent by cancer.
A jigsaw puzzle
At Winston’s Wish, we often talk about building up a jigsaw puzzle for a child or young person when it comes to giving them information. A young child needs only a fewer pieces of the puzzle such as “daddy is very ill” “he has cancer” “he might die” “we want to do nice things with daddy while he is alive”. It’s not necessary to give the child the whole puzzle/all the information all at once. A younger child may only manage “daddy is very ill” at first and then to give the child another piece shortly after. Older children will require more information about what is happening and what the future may bring.
As a child grows older, following the death of their parent these jigsaw puzzles can grow and more pieces of information can be added.
Open and honest conversations
When talking to a child or young there is an instinct to try to protect children from the horrors and sadness in the world. This is so true when it comes to talking with a child about diagnosis and prognosis. We know at Winston’s Wish that one of the important things though is to have open and honest conversations with children and young people. Although this may feel like it is going against the instinct to protect, in fact by enabling children to have age-appropriate information in a timely manner you are in fact protecting the children from a future where they feel they cannot trust you.
It amazes me when I speak with children and young people about what happened and how they found out what was going on, how many talk about how glad they were that they could be involved in what was happening as a parent is dying. This is only possible when a child or young person has clear, accurate, truthful and timely information.
It’s important to note that half-truths or inaccurate information can cause more problems for everyone. When a child finds this out, and they will, the trust between an adult and a child has been broken and trust is so important at such a challenging time.
Allowing questions is important. These may come when you give new information or later on. I often hear from parents that children ask questions when they are going to bed or driving in the car so it is important to know how you will answer certain questions before they arise. It is also important when these questions come, and they will, that if you don’t know any answer to say so. Children can cope with uncertainty better than lies or half-truths.
Living with the tension of hope and current information can be extremely difficult. The Oncology (cancer) treatment may well have been all about cure and recovery and the switch to Palliative (end of life) treatment. It can feel like the pace of life changes. You may go from lots of treatments, visits to hospital, and appointments to a slower pace of occasional appointments and visits from community teams. Children will pick up on this. It can feel when the pace changes that all hope is gone.
Preparing for the future
It can feel like a gargantuan task to prepare for a future where a parent is not going to be alive. There are the practical things such as who will look after the child or making a will but there are also tasks you may want to do around building memories.
Building memories include writing letters for the children to have once the parent has died, creating a photo album or memory box with things the children might not know about or writing little notes to the children. There are lots of really great ideas on places like Pinterest.