Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Talking with Teenagers about Grandfather’s Illness

teen grief
Photo By Julia Tsokur/shutterstock

I am devastated. My dad has just been diagnosed with a serious case of prostate cancer. He is 70, but has always had excellent health and the vibrancy of a much younger man.

I am a single mom with two children. My elder child, almost 18, is in his last year of high school and will be starting college next year. He is a very sensitive boy and is actually very ‘young’ for his age in many ways. My younger child is almost 14, and has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Both kids, who are my dad’s only grandchildren, have been very close to him all their lives.

I have always been of the mind-set with my children that no matter what, we don’t hide things from each other and we don’t lie to each other. I don’t appreciate when my parents ‘shelter’ me, and I always said I wouldn’t do it to my own children when the time came.

That being said, now that I am in a situation like this, I am unsure of when to tell them. I don’t want to jump the gun and I also don’t want to worry either of them unnecessarily.

My daughter tends to worry about everything, yet needs to know everything as well . . . which is a double-edged sword. My son has a learning disability and needs to focus on his last little bit of school; I worry this would be distracting to him.

Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

My heart goes out to you and your family as you deal with your dad’s serious medical situation. I hope I can offer some helpful advice and resources.

I think your instincts are spot-on about not hiding your dad’s situation from your kids. This is really about trust: If you’re not forthright now, they may feel they cannot trust you completely in the future.

You may find that my document, “Guidelines for Telling Your Child That a Family Member Has a Serious Disease or Illness,” provides you with some ideas about the timing and content of what to communicate to your kids.

Another resource I highly recommend, especially since your children are teenagers, is the podcast, “Helping Children and Teens Understand When a Parent or Loved One Has Cancer”. (The original audience was sent printed materials; you do not need these materials to benefit from the advice provided by the panel of four experts.)

In your particular situation, because your dad is so close to your children and plays such a critical role in their lives, here are my specific suggestions:

  • I suggest you and your dad figure out together what you want to say to the children. It might be helpful if you and your dad review and discuss my guidelines together, as well as listen to the podcast together. This may help you and your dad decide exactly what and how you want to communicate.
  • Once you and your dad have worked together to figure out the specific information you want to share with your children (write it out!), and if your dad is comfortable with this, I suggest the four of you sit down together. Otherwise, you can talk alone with your two kids if your dad chooses not to be present.
  • Your attitude needs to be one of “Gee, we wish we didn’t have this medical challenge of Grandpa’s to deal with, but it’s all part of life.” Your kids will take their lead from you, so you want to show concern, but not panic. Be calm and hopeful: “Yes, this is serious, and we’re so glad Grandpa has a great medical team working with him.”
  • You want to arm yourselves with a few important facts about your dad’s particular kind of prostate cancer: “Here is what the doctors are saying . . . this is what they are hopeful about, this is what they said might be of concern.”
  • Your kids will naturally want to know if their grandfather is going to die. Hit this head on. I give some specific ways to do this in my guidelines referenced above (guideline #8).
  • Your kids will also want to know what the short- and long-term implications of their grandfather’s situation are in terms of their daily lives. Your kids aren’t being self-absorbed or selfish: it is to be expected that they will deal with their fears and anxieties by wanting to know what to expect.

Read Next | Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother Wants Money from Grandparents for Kids’ Camp

Follow Up from the Mom One Week Later

After getting more information from my dad’s wife and learning that it was worse than he was telling me, I decided not to wait with the kids. He had already told me that I could tell them, but that he didn’t want them posting it on Facebook or advertising it to everybody. He doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or treat him differently.

He lives a few hours away, so he couldn’t be present.

I told my son first and he was ‘fine’. Almost too fine, as far as I am concerned. But I shall watch that closely as he tends to be like that.

My daughter was more emotional. She cried and became very angry. She remains angry with God for making a good, healthy, happy man ill and doesn’t understand why it couldn’t happen to mean people instead.

She cried herself to sleep last night and woke up angry today. She is an incredibly sensitive girl and very empathetic. She is concerned he is scared and needs us to love him.

So we have planned a weekend next week to go spend with her grandfather where she can get on the lawn tractor and mow his lawns for him and help him out in the gardens.

As far as I am doing . . . Still in shock . . . My father isn’t old to me so this is a tough one to process. I am not ready.

My focus is on my kids and them not being ‘scarred’ by this. I want it to be as good of an experience as possible so they enjoy him and love him and always have positive memories of their grandfather.

Thanks again for your wonderful article and responding so quickly. It means a lot to me that there are still decent people out there who care.

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen

E-mail queries to [email protected]

 Visit to learn about Dr. Gramma Karen’s recent book,

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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Read Next | Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Our Daughter Cope with Grandmother’s Impending Death

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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