One of the most traumatic things a child can face is the looming death of a parent. Adults who play primary roles in the life of a child with a fatally ill parent have the ability to truly and effectively assist that child in preparing for the loss of a beloved mother or father.
With that in mind, there are some factors and strategies that must be borne in mind when it comes to preparing a child for the death of a parent. By utilizing these factors and strategies, an adult, including the spouse of an ill parent, can take important steps towards preparing a child for the impending death of that sick mother or father.
Fred Rogers, more widely known as television’s Mister Rogers, summed up the importance of adults helping a child prepare for the death of an ill parent:
“Children don’t know that sadness isn’t forever. It’s frightening for them to feel that their sadness may overwhelm them and never go away. That “the very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes” is something all parents need to help their children come to understand.”
The Timing of Communicating and Beginning to Prepare a Child for a Parent's Impending Death
As mentioned previously, there is near unanimity among professionals that a child should be told the truth about the impending death of a parent. The information must be conveyed in an age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate manner.
With that noted again, one real issue that must be addressed is determining when a child should be told about a parent’s approaching death. There is a long-used cliché that “timing is everything,” and that certainly is the case when it comes to letting a child know about the anticipated death of a parent.
The stark reality is that figuring out when the most appropriate time to explain to a child that a parent is likely soon to pass is not an easy decision to make. This is not a question of penciling a family event onto the daily planner.
Understanding the complex nature of selecting the most appropriate time to give a child this news, you need to fully understand that there is no “right time” to be the bearer of this information to a child. In the end, there simply are varying shades of gray when you are faced with picking the seemingly most suitable time to discuss the matter of a parent’s impending passing.
There are some points you can ponder when you are trying to make an informed, appropriate decision in regard to this issue. These points to ponder have been concisely delineated by the Canadian Hospice Exchange. The first step that you should take in considering when to have a full and frank conversation with a child is to speak with the primary attending physician in the parent’s case.
In reality, a doctor can rarely provide absolutely precise information on when a person in his or her care will pass, more often than not he or she can provide some fairly accurate data in this regard. There certainly are times in which a physician can state with little reservation that the death of a patient is imminent.
If you find yourself facing a situation in which a doctor you trust has advised that a parent has reached the juncture when death could come at almost any time, you have no real space available to delay talking to a child. Other factors pertaining to timing really do get put to the side when this information is provided by a doctor.
You do need to keep in mind that even when a doctor advises that death is not imminent, that conclusion is only his or her best professional estimate. The doctor very well may be correct in indication that a patient has at least some time left before the situation becomes absolutely critical. However, history is replete with cases in which a doctor indicates a patient will be around for a while and then passes quickly.
The point in presenting this notation is that you cannot use a prognosis that suggests a patient has some time before he or she will pass to unnecessarily delay telling a child of what lies ahead. It does provide you at least the ability to consider the other factors set forth in moment regarding the timing of talking to a child about the condition of his or her parent.
With the attending physician in mind, you do not need to hold off discussing the impending death of a parent with a child until you have collected all medical information. Oftentimes adults have an understandable tendency to put off telling a child about the true status of a parent’s health until additional tests are taken and so forth. In reality, once a reasonable diagnosis has been made, and verified, delaying until some additional tests are undertaken oftentimes is not wise.
A common turn of events in such a situation where some additional testing is ordered is that this supplemental effort merely affirms what is already known about a patient’s health. When it comes to a patient who has been diagnosed as having a fatal illness, this additional delay ends up pushing back informing a child about the state of parent’s health for no solid reason. Such a scenario actually works to take from the child some additional time in which he or she otherwise would have been able to come to at least some degree of understanding and perhaps even acceptance of the parent’s health and status.
When the status of a parent’s health is known to other adults, like a spouse, the time to lay the groundwork for an ultimate conversation with a child has arrived. The key step other adults, particularly the other parent, need to take is to strive to foster an environment in which the child feels comfortable asking questions.
A step towards fostering this type of environment in which a child feels comfortable asking question about a parent’s health is being upfront and honest about the fact that the parent has taken ill. There is a world of difference between telling a child that his or her mother or father is sick as opposed to advising that a parent may soon pass away.
By ensuring that an environment is created that makes a child feel comfortable raising questions, a child is likely to ultimately begin asking them. The reality is that even a fairly young child ultimately may start to see some changes in the behavior and appearance of the parent has taken ill. Of course, that parent may be hospitalized or be in and out of a medical center.
The point in time at which a child starts asking questions about the parent’s health is a good indicator that the appropriate time is approaching to tell the child about the ultimate prognosis of the ill parent.
The child is quite likely to get to the point at which he or she asks more specific questions about what the future has in store for the ill parent. For example, if the parent has been diagnosed with cancer, that condition should be shared with the child at some juncture. Once that information is received, a child is likely to ask if his or her mother or father will die from cancer.
The final segue to the timing of a frank discussion of the impending death of a parent typically occurs at the point in time when the child his or her self begins asking these types of questions. At that juncture, the other parent, or an appropriate adult, can raise the question to the child regarding what he or she currently understands about what is happening with the ill parent. The response to this line of questioning will prove to be the most telling indication that the time has arrived to explain the reality of the parent’s health to the child.
Preparing a Child for a Parent's Death: Age and Development Considerations
In addition to the cliché that “timing is everything,” another often-used statement about discussing a serious issue with a child is that such a conversation must be age-appropriate. Research marshalled by WebMD underscores how important this is when assisting a child in preparing for death. In fact, preparing a child for the impending death of a parent must not only be age appropriate, but it must be suitable to the developmental status of the child. The reality is that some children develop intellectually and emotionally at a faster rate than others.
Understanding the distinction between actual and an emotional and intellectual development, some broader age categories do assist in determining what should and should not be done to prepare a child for the impending death of parent. These categories, and suggested action at each age level, are not intended to be in concrete. Rather, they are designed to serve as general thoughts and recommendations, subject to a consideration of the actual emotional and intellectual development status of a particular child.
The reality is that a preschooler is likely not apt to be able to come close to fully comprehending what is going on with an ill parent. Not only will it be impossible to explain to a preschooler that a parent may soon die, a child in this age category will likely have a very tough time even fully appreciating that a parent is seriously ill.
With that said, even a child who is of an age where he or she is mobile typically has the ability to detect something or another is out of whack, not normal, in the household.
Oftentimes when a parent becomes seriously ill, a child in this young age group may start to experience bedwetting or want to sleep with parents. This occurs when a child has not previously exhibited this type of behavior.
There is no direct way a child of this age can be prepared for the death of a parent. This simply is not possible because a child in this age group just doesn’t understand what it means to have an incurable illness nor what it means to be facing death in the fairly immediate future.
There at some practical steps you can take to more indirectly prepare a young child of this age for the passing of a parent. For example, you can have a young child in this age group make “get well” cards for the ill parent.
Although this can be easier said that done, another way in which you can prepare a child this agent for the passing of a parent is to try and control the level of tension and anxiety in the house. In the final analysis, the primary reason why a preschooler will exhibit negative responses of the kind described a moment ago is because of his or her response to how older people in the house are acting, feeling, and behaving.
Early School-Aged Children
When children reach their early school years there can be some pretty significant disparity in the emotional and intellectual development of children who are the same age. For example, a nine year old may have a clear idea that a parent is seriously ill and facing death. On the other hand, another child of the same age may be completely clueless as to what is happening in regard to a parent.
The key to preparing a child of this age for the death of a parent is to find out what he or she understands is going on in regard to the ill parent. That will provide you a guidepost as to where to begin in the way of communicating with and supporting the child.
A child of about 10 years old through the beginning of the teen years represents one of the more challenging category of young person when it comes to preparation for the death of a parent. A child in this age group not only has access to the internet, but understands how to glean information from the world wide web.
If a child of this age has heard the name of the illness from which a parent suffers, you can be certain that the child has conducted research. The child is likely to have amassed a considerable amount of information about the condition of the ill parent. However, because of his or her age, a child in this age range will have real challenges trying to put the information into a broader perspective. He or she may understand that a parent is ill. However, a child of this age may still have problems fully connecting even a serious illness or disease with the idea that one of his or her parents may be close to death.
A teenager will want to know about the specifics of a parent’s health. Generally speaking, a teenager, particularly an older one, will have reached the stage of emotional and intellectual development that he or she will be able to understand what an ill parent is facing in regard to the prospect of dying.
One strategy that a person can employ in assisting a teenager in preparing for the death of a parent is including him or her more closely in the care and treatment of the ill mother or father. For example, a teenager might appropriately attend certain meetings or appointments with healthcare providers.
Proving a teenager with comprehensive information about a parent’s illness, and involving the teen in certain aspects of that parent’s care and treatment, permits the teen a better chance of feeling a part of the process. A teenager engaged in this manner is likely to feel more in control of the situation and less like he or she is floundering.
Who Should Tell a Child About an Ill Parent's Ultimate Prognosis?
One of the major questions you face when a parent becomes ill and needs to be prepared for the death of his or her mother or father involves who will tell the child about what really is going on with the parent. There are a number of factors that come into play when trying to ascertain who is in the best position to tell a child that a parent is facing death.
If both parents are alive and together, sometimes the ideal way to reach out to a child and prepare him or her for death is if both parents participate in the process. With that noted, there are times in which the ill parent does not feel up to facing his or her child and really leveling with the youth about what is going. Because of the health and emotional state of the ill parent, his or her own feelings must be respected in the process of preparing a child for that parent’s death.
In the final analysis, when it comes to preparing a child for the death of a parent, it is vital to understand there is no one size fits all strategy that can be employed in all situations. By taking heed of the suggestions and strategies contained in this article, particularly as they relate to the age and development of a child, adults place themselves in the best position to effectively prepare a child for the death of a parent and do so in a meaningful way.