Chapter 6: Supporting children in their grief
Communicating and answering questions
Our sons have had a lot of questions along the way, and we’ve tried our best to answer them honestly in a way that they can understand. I recognize now that they’ve also experienced losses and grief as their mother’s illness has progressed.
Some of the most common types of concerns expressed by grieving children, have been referred to as the “4 C’s” — Can I CATCH it? Did I CAUSE it? Can I CURE it? and Who will take CARE of me. Below are some unique aspects of these concerns for children when someone has a progressive illness. Click each box read more about each concern and to see suggestions for talking with children about it.
Children may wonder if the disease is contagious. Reassure them by explaining that the disease is not something they can “catch.”
Children may also wonder, “Will I get this when I grow up?” If there is a genetic component to the disease, it may be helpful to talk about it, depending on an individual child’s needs and abilities. Let them know that a having a “risk” does not mean that something “will” happen. It may be helpful to identify people who share genes but do not have the same disease.
With a hereditary disease, you may want to consider the possibility of testing to get help early if needed. Remember that research continues, and new treatments may exist when a child is older.
“I know that you might be worried about catching what mom has, but her illness isn’t contagious. You can still hug your mom or hold her hand, and you won’t catch what she has. It’s not like a cold.”
“This does feel scary. Although you dad has this disease and it can be passed on, there are a lot of people in dad’s family who did not get it. Let’s make a list of your aunts, uncles, and cousins who don’t have it. There are a lot of them!”
“There may be a risk, but that does not mean you have it or will get it. Let’s take this one step at a time. And remember that I will be with you.”
In addition to worrying that they have caused the disease, children may also believe that the person is acting differently because of something the child did.
Gently reassure the child that they did not cause the illness or the death. Let the child know that changes in the person’s behaviour are due to the illness, and not the child.
“Our brains think and control the way our bodies move and talk. This disease is changing the way your dad’s brain works, making it hard for him to think/move/act/talk in the way that he used to. It is not your fault.”
“Grandpa is not angry with you. His sickness is why he doesn’t remember you or talk with you about school anymore. I feel very sad too because he doesn’t talk with me either. Why don’t you tell me what you were going to share with Grandpa?”
Children often worry that they could have somehow prevented the person from becoming ill.
Explain that there are some illnesses that can’t be cured, but there are ways to bring the person comfort and care. Acknowledge feelings and thoughts, without judgment, and gently reassure the child that the person’s illness isn’t their fault.
“They have been sick for a long time. There was nothing you could have done to make them better. The doctors and nurses worked really hard, but even they could not stop Grandma from getting sick.”
If the person who is sick is the children’s primary caregiver, children wonder what will happen when the person becomes too ill to care for them. Reassure them and speak about who would help to care for them if needed for any reason.
If they have a parent who is looking after the person who is sick, the child may worry about their own care needs not being met. Let the child know that no matter how much you are caring for the ill person, you will still love and look after the child too.
If someone takes over a parent’s roles or responsibilities, a child may feel guilty or worry about “replacing” their parent. If the child is worried that someone is replacing their parent, be sure to clarify that while someone may do certain tasks and activities, no one will ever take the parent’s place in their life.
“If Mom gets too sick, I’ll still be here to look after you, and your aunt will also come to help us.”
“Even though I have been very quiet and feeling sad lately, I would love to hear about what is going on at school.”
“I know you’re not happy about your sister making your meals and taking you to school. She wants to help out and look after you, but that doesn’t mean she’s trying to replace Mom. Your mom will always be your mom, and no one can take her place.”