Several readers responded to my 2/16/12 column, How to Tell My Children Their Grandmother Has Cancer. After dealing with the situation for several weeks, Laurie, the mom who initially sent in the situation, shared her experiences and commented on the “Guidelines for Telling Your Child That a Family Member Has a Serious Disease or Illness” that I had written.
Regarding the second guideline, “Your goal is to tell your child the truth in a way he/she can understand,” Laurie said she found her seven-year-old daughter can get easily overwhelmed so she is careful not to share too much of the medical details with her, whereas her eight-year-old can handle the medical details. Further, Laurie suggests that children not conduct their own, unsupervised online searches for information because sites contain graphic images that can be extremely upsetting.
And finally, Laurie has found the following American Cancer Society link particularly helpful. It addresses many important questions, including:
- Helping children when a family member has cancer: dealing with diagnosis
- How should children be told that a parent has cancer?
- Should I expect my child to be upset?
- Are there certain responses that I should expect?
- What if my child asks if I`m going to die?
- How can I reassure my child that everything will be fine?
- How will I know if my child needs extra help?
- Words to describe cancer and its treatment
Another reader, a grandmother who underwent a long and painful cancer treatment regimen wrote about losing her hair. “The grandchildren got pretty used to seeing me with and without my wig, but sometimes they weren’t so sure about me without it. One of my grandsons saw me without my wig when he went in for a nap, and then with it on when he woke up. He exclaimed, ‘Grandma’s hair grew back!’ ” This is a reminder that sometimes we need to be more specific in explaining time frameworks to children!
Regarding guideline #13, “…talk with your child about changes he/she may see as a result of your loved one’s treatments and/or operations. These changes may include visible side effects, new people in the picture, e.g., caretakers; use of devices and equipment,” this same grandmother wrote: “At one point I carried around my chemo in a tote bag all day, every day, for about a week, because my grandchildren had some end-of-school activities that I didn’t want to miss. I think my grandchildren just accepted this because I was pretty nonchalant about it.”
In response to the last guideline, “Yes, there may be changes as a result of the diagnosis, but everyone will continue to love each other and help each other as much as possible,” she wrote, “I think this is key. My daughter made a poster-size photo of my grandchildren to hang by my station in the clinic for the two weeks I was there for a difficult procedure. This poster not only cheered me immeasurably, but all the other patients and staff loved it.”
Another reader wrote: “I wish I had read your fourth guideline a couple of years ago… (“Before you talk with your child, you may want to find out from the person with the disease or illness if he/she has some preferences about what gets communicated about his/her situation and his/her thoughts about having visitors and/or involvement with your child”)…as I brought my kids into the hospital as a surprise to see my father after he had some surgery. He was very angry with me, saying he did not want his grandchildren to see him that way. I should have checked with him first.”
A final positive comment from a young mom whose mother underwent cancer treatments and is enjoying good health: “The children can actually come away from an experience like this [when a sick person struggles and survives] relieved and with a positive feeling that people get sick / have life struggles — but that help is available.” I would add that even when the outcome results in losing a loved one, children can still find a sense of comfort and encouragement in seeing how their family members and friends all pull together to offer love and support.
Update on my 3/8/12 column: My Son’s Inheritance Is at Risk. Steve decided to talk with his parents about how he felt about one of his sons being excluded in their will, and both Steve and his wife are very glad he did! Steve learned that his parents had drafted their own will and had not as yet shared it with their lawyer. It seems Steve’s parents remembered seeing some TV show in which the biological parent of an adopted child had caused all kinds of inheritance problems when the adoptive parents died, and they were afraid something similar could happen in their family. Steve’s sister had seen their draft (because her husband was being named executor) and before discussing it with her parents who were traveling, she told Steve about Robert not inheriting with the other grandchildren. Steve says his sister is a good person and he does not think she was trying to start any trouble; she was merely sharing what she had read.
Steve’s parents were unsure what to do about Robert’s inheritance. The TV show they had seen rattled them and they planned to discuss it with their lawyer. They were glad Steve talked with them. They reassured him that they love Robert and consider him their grandchild right along their other grandchildren. Their will is in the hands of their lawyer, who reassured them that Robert’s biological father cannot legally cause any mischief. Therefore, Steve’s parents’ last will and testament will be executed with all four grandchildren inheriting equally. Love happy endings! P.S. Things are not always what they seem to be.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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