A patient asked his hospice nurse, “How can I tell my kid that I’m dying?”
And the nurse later asked me.
It’s a scary question for parents and grandparents when they enter hospice care and have “six months or less to live.”
Before attempting answers, there are several good reasons to question my responses.
First, I don’t have children. I’ll never tell my own kid that I am dying. Second, I’m not an expert, but do have experience. A minister, I’ve supported families during the time of dying and grieving. Right now, in hospice, I work in bereavement support.
Now you’re aware of my advice-giver flaws! However, with conversations involving parents, kids, and dying, being open about your weaknesses (and not forgetting your strengths) is important.
For responses, I’m guided by a favorite quote from President Franklin Roosevelt: be sincere; be brief; and be seated. Apparently, that was FDR’s humorous advice on public speaking! It’s also a solid foundation when a kid you love awaits your answers.
Be honest with your feelings about death. Don’t tell your kid something you don’t believe. Why tell a child that Mom’s going to heaven when you don’t believe in heaven? While there’s no need to share the complexities of adult fears and doubts, don’t ignore them in your explanations. If you’re afraid, let children know you have fears while reassuring them of your unwavering support and availability for them. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Even if your kid unexpectedly asks questions, be thoughtful with the answers. Maybe you’ll need to think about what to say, so ask the child if you can talk later—but do talk later! If you make a promise, keep the promise. Plan carefully about any serious conversation with your child—though it’s likely some of what you “rehearse” will never be used.
Which is to say, listen carefully to a child’s questions or concerns. In our polarized, 24/7 news world, it irks me when a politician gets a specific question (“What is your stand on climate change?”) and then spews sound bites that please a base of supporters without alienating fence-sitters. If a child asks about heaven, or if dying hurts, or how they can help or any of a hundred issues that may be troubling them, give simple, straightforward responses.
Don’t avoid what has been asked. Don’t answer what hasn’t been asked. And remember what I said above about “I don’t know.” That sincere reply can be followed by, “But let’s try to find an answer for your question together.”
Roosevelt probably used this to add levity to the brevity. But here’s my take on it for talking about dying: share at your child’s level. Sit with them and talk with them. Most children have experienced death. A pet or grandparent has died. Springtime flowers are gone in winter. A character on TV or a movie will die.
[Trust me, children know more than you think they do!]
Don’t tell a child that Daddy’s dying is like going to sleep. If death is “like sleep,” a kid’s bedtime could become dread-time. A parent explaining a pet’s death by announcing it “took a vacation” inspired the ironic title for Patty Dann’s The Goldfish Went on Vacation. Dann’s memoir of her husband’s dying and death is one of my favorites. Please, don’t confuse your child with clichéd euphemisms or metaphors! Children typically perceive the world in black-and-white terms: there are rewards and punishments, there are good people or bad people.
And please make sure a child understands the parent’s death is not their fault.
[Trust me, children don’t know as much as you do!]
In summary, here are my dozen kid-friendly guidelines:
#1 – Listen to the child’s question and answer that question.
#2 – Keep language as simple as possible. (Adults also appreciate this.)
#3 – Honestly say, “I don’t know.”
#4 – Honestly say, “Let’s figure it out together.”
#5 – Crying is okay, even for adults. Everyone grieves differently.
#6 – Not crying is okay, even for kids. Everyone grieves differently.
#7.1 – The death is not the child’s fault.
#7.2 – The death is not the child’s fault.
#8 – Sometimes you may need to repeat what you’ve said. (Works with adults, too.)
#9 – Everyone is sad (or happy) in different moments and ways.
#10 – If you’re religious, maybe avoid saying God takes people from us. Instead, what if God receives them when they die? (Who wants to believe in a God that takes loved ones?)
#11 – If you’re not religious, don’t tell a child something you as an adult don’t believe.
#12 – Time doesn’t automatically heal, but supporting a child is time well spent.
I hope you use easy-to-understand words about dying, death, and grief with the children in your life. But it will never be an easy or comfortable conversation. If you know a rabbi, imam, or minister, request their feedback and support for your efforts. If you have a trusted friend or family member, let them know you are helping your child understand a loved one’s dying and death. Having someone to rehearse with before, or talk with afterwards, is beneficial.
These aren’t one-time conversations; they continue for a lifetime.
None of us are experts. But through our honest sharing, we can try to do our best to support our children and their not-so-childish questions.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
Image from here.