Talking to children if recovery is unlikely

Talking to children if recovery is unlikely

The following article has been written and provided by Winston’s Wish, the leading childhood bereavement charity in the UK.

If you are certain a parent is not going to recover

If you have reached a point when your health is deteriorating to such a degree that you know you will die, then the most difficult conversation of all will need to take place.

If you can summon up the strength, then it really is best for children to hear this news from the people they trust most – their parents. When hope is taken away, then it is fairly inevitable that those who have been clinging to that life raft will feel cast adrift and desperately sad, even angry. Children are no different.

Hannah, do you remember that we agreed that I would always let you know what the doctors said about my illness? And that I wouldn’t pretend to you – even if that meant that the news wasn’t always good? Well, today I spoke with Dr Khan at the hospital and he told me that the Cancer has got much worse. He does not think he can make me better now. He thinks that I may not have very long to live and that is why I am so sleepy ...

For an older child who you feel can handle the uncertainty, you may decide to involve them with more information.

“Telling the children that I was likely to die was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I hope it didn’t come as a total shock as we had tried to involve them along the way. Nathan left the room in tears and Amy couldn’t look at me – I think she was in shock. I just hugged her.” Rachel

If the illness becomes truly terminal, children may become less comfortable about asking questions. If this is the case, you can help them by taking the initiative – ask them how much they want to know. How families respond at this point varies enormously and this may be a good time to call the Winston’s Wish helpline (on 08452 03 04 05) to discuss your individual concerns.

A father told a hospice nurse he didn’t think his wife understood that she was dying. “I don’t think she can handle this.” He felt he couldn’t tell their children. He thought it would be disloyal while his wife still kept hoping for a cure and that the children shouldn’t talk about death. Later on, when his teenage daughter visited the hospice, she told the same nurse “I know mum is dying – we’ve talked about it”. It turned out that Becky was helping her mum to bath one day and she had said “I’m not sure I’m going to make it this time Becks – I think I’m dying”.
The nurse asked Becky if she thought they could share that with dad. Becky looked startled and unsure. “I’m not sure dad could handle that.”

The family still tended to avoid conversations with the ‘D word’ but they were eventually able to acknowledge that Becky’s mother was dying, and to support each other.

When death is imminent

Children need the opportunity of these last times together. The physical situation may be daunting, and may be frightening, but your children can get past this. They’re trying to reach the real parent who they love – and their love goes way beyond what their parent looks like or acts like.

Mum has tried so hard to beat this illness. The doctors and everyone at the hospital have tried so hard too. Now it is time for her to die. She’s not in pain. The doctors think it may be in the next few days but it could be sooner. Although she’ll be very weak and sleepy we’ll try to make mum comfortable. Her breathing will gradually slow down and after a while her heart will stop. The nurse told me that mum is unlikely to be able to talk any more but she may be able to hear us if we want to say anything.

The last days of a parent's life will inevitably be heartbreakingly sad. Yet with the right help and support, children will also be able to look back on those days as being full of love and precious closeness. In time, they will be able to remember and smile about mum or dad's life and not only think of their death.

©Winston’s Wish.

Winston’s Wish is the leading childhood bereavement charity in the UK. Winston’s Wish helps children rebuild their lives after the death of a parent or sibling, enabling them to face the future with confidence and hope. We offer the widest range of practical support and guidance to children, families, professionals and anyone concerned about a bereaved child. We know from experience that the right support offered at the right time can have a life-changing impact on bereaved children.

To help support a child when a parent or Carer is seriously ill we have produced a booklet called ‘As Big As It Gets’ which is available from our website Anyone concerned about a bereaved child can also call the Winston’s Wish national Helpline on 08452 03 04 05 (9am-5pm Monday to Friday).
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