This guest post is from Emily Fowler who doesn’t have a blog (she should!), but you can find her on Twitter: @Ladyaero3. If you’d like to guest post, email me at elle dot mommyhood at gmail dot com.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer three years ago when my son was nine years old. In the time since then I have had to muddle my way through figuring out how to help our son deal with the fact that Daddy has cancer. While I fervently hope none of you will ever need to learn the lessons I have learned, I think they can actually have a much broader application for some of the other family challenges we all face.
1) Your kids know when something is wrong, so don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes
When my husband first went to the Dr, we didn’t know for sure it was cancer (on that Friday afternoon we were only told “It doesn’t look good, come back for more tests on Monday”…seriously?!). We decided to wait to tell our son until we had more information. The thing about kids, though, is that they’re so much more aware than we think they are. Despite our attempts to keep things as lighthearted and normal as possible, on the way home from the Farmers Market that Sunday, my son asked from the backseat “Mom, why are you so sad?”
We carry a lot of stressors as parents (family illness, unemployment, loss, divorce) and while we don’t want to make our kids carry those burdens, we can’t hide them from our kids either. Letting our children know (in age appropriate terms**) what’s happening and how you are going to handle it can make them feel much more secure- “Well, it sucks, but Mom & Dad know what’s happening and they’ve got it covered.”
2) Build your kids a safety net
For most kids, they have an innate belief that if something really bad happens, Mom or Dad will be there to catch them when they fall. When our children are faced with the sudden awareness that Mom & Dad might not always be there, it can throw their whole world off axis. No matter what is causing the tilt (having dual homes after a divorce, learning that parents are not immortal), one way to help kids regain their footing is to show them in black and white what their safety net looks like.
To alleviate my son’s fears of being left alone (‘cause he figured if Dads could go away, Moms might too), I sat down with him and wrote down who would take care of him if something happened to me. Because my son is a “what if” kind of kid, I had to make the list about 12 people deep before he felt secure that all the bases were covered, but it did the trick. Having that list also made him feel safer when Dad was in the hospital and someone else had to pick him up from school for me- he knew who had his back.
3) Remember that your kids are still growing
There is a very big difference between how a nine year old deals with things and how a twelve year old deals with things. That’s true no matter what is happening in your life, but it’s something that really hits home when you have a situation that stretches over the span of years. It means that every once in a while you have to stop and really look at whether you’re still meeting your kids’ emotional and intellectual needs when it comes to dealing with a family challenge.
While we have had the help of a school counselor the past couple of years, we recently decided (including input from my son) that it was time to get my son a different level of support (in our case, a counselor who specializes in working with kids and families with a major or terminal illness).
Being a pre-Teen (oh, the fun of hormones and mood swings!) is hard enough- trying to deal with that and a family crisis at the same time is just adding fuel to the fire. Where my son’s nine year old self was more comfortable venting to me, his 12 year old self needed an additional outlet. Sometimes he asks me to stay and sometimes wants to talk to the counselor on his own. It’s all good. And in a few years, he might need something else- I’ll need to keep checking.
Also, remember that your very smart kids are getting smarter all the time. While we have always given our son the facts about cancer (except for life expectancy, since even our Dr. can’t tell us that right now), over the years the detail level of those facts has had to increase to meet our son’s age and intellectual curiosity.
Dumbing down the answers just leaves him frustrated and confused. So, every once in a while check in with yourself (and your kids!) to see if you are trying to help them in their understanding of their world or if you are trying to hide it from them. If you find it’s that latter, go back and read #1 again.
4) Take care of yourself
Wait, what? Yes, this is a list of ways to help your kids, but you just can’t do that when you’re so worn out or sad or empty that you can’t even crawl out from under the covers. During my husband’s stem cell transplant, my sister helped organize a list of folks that wanted to be of service. One of the things she organized was time off for me.
One night every other week, someone would take my son for a fun night out and another person would bring dinner for my husband while another friend got me out of the house for a couple of hours. I didn’t think I needed that, right up until I left the house. Suddenly, my shoulders didn’t feel quite so weighed down and my mind had something besides worry to focus on. I came back from those couple of hours with my batteries recharged and my empathy back in place (it can wear down when you’re a constant caretaker). When the road is rough, don’t forget to pull off at a rest stop now and then.
**Over the last three years I have had many folks ask me how to explain cancer to younger kids. With so many people living longer lives these days, it pops up more than folks might think (especially with Grandparents or even Great-Grandparents).
I have seen instances where people just try to hide it (“Grandma’s just under the weather” but then she ends up in the hospital, leaving kids panicked that their next cold is going to be fatal) and some where the clinical explanation given to kids would have been hard for pre-med students to follow. And so I offer up what I told my son on that very hard day three years ago. I hope you never need to use it.
“Cancer cells are regular cells that have gone wonky (or weird, or crazy, or whatever word your family uses for something that just isn’t quite right). The cancer cells then try to make lots of other cells just like them. That can get in the way of our healthy cells doing their jobs, though, which can mean our bodies won’t work right anymore.”
In response to “Does cancer make you die?” (The second part is chemo specific, so change as needed): “If certain parts of our bodies can’t do their jobs any more, then, yes, it can make you die. But we’re fighting those cancer cells. The Dr. is giving some medicine that kills fast growing cells like cancer so we can keep it from going places it shouldn’t be going.
Our bodies have other fast growing cells too- like the ones that grow our hair- so they might lose their hair for a while, but it will grow back. They will need lots of extra rest to fight the cancer, but we’re all going to be sending lots of love to help. Would you like to draw them a picture or write them a letter? I know they would like that.”