How to Talk to Your Children About a Loved One with Terminal Illness

When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness it’s always difficult for the entire family, and it can be especially difficult for children who may not fully understand the gravity of the situation. While some people may be hesitant to explain a terminal diagnosis to a child, it’s important to recognize that children are a part of the family and deserve to know what’s happening just like any other family member. 

There is no “best time” to talk to your children about a loved one with a terminal illness, but The American Cancer Society recommends having the difficult conversations sooner rather than later. Giving children the necessary information allows them to ask questions and to process the situation at their own pace. As you figure out what works best for your family, here are several tips that can help you talk to your children.

Ask someone else to be there with you when you have the conversation. It can be another family member or a close family friend as long as it’s someone your children trust. They can help you answer any questions and it’s helpful for your children to know they can come to both of you if they have any questions. 

Use simple and straightforward language. It’s understandable that you want to be as gentle as possible but saying things like your loved one is “going away” or “going to heaven” can confuse children, causing them to think the person may return. Take the time to explain to them what dying means and be sure they understand what you’re saying.

Don’t hold back from showing emotions. It’s understandable that you want to be strong, but being vulnerable and showing emotions lets your children know it’s okay for them to do the same. Reassure your children that it’s not their fault and it’s okay for them to react emotionally also. 

Encourage them to ask questions. Most children will have questions whether immediately or in the coming days and weeks. At UMC we know it can be difficult when you don’t have all the answers, but we recommend answering openly and honestly. Let them know they can come to you at any time, and that no questions are off-limits.

Supporting your kids during a difficult time

It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children and to feel like you must reassure them that everything will be okay. But when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness it’s important to be honest with your children so they understand the reality of the situation. It’s also important to let your children know that no matter what happens, they are still loved and will continue to be loved and cared for. When going through a difficult and uncertain time kids sometimes think it’s their fault and that something they’ve done has caused the situation, so be sure to let them know this isn’t true.

Another way UMC recommends supporting your children during this difficult time is to adhere to their usual routine as much as possible. Daily routines are very helpful in providing structure and stability, and all of us – especially children – thrive from routine. It may require the help of family and close friends, but it will ease the stress and uncertainty for your kids. 

If you’d like information about our hospice and palliative care community Bridges at The Shores in South Jersey or if you’re interested in scheduling a virtual tour of our facilities, please contact us today. We look forward to hearing from you.