I know – heavy stuff for a Monday morning.
When I decided to launch this new series last month, my goal was – and is – to not only introduce you to great bloggers, authors and “creatives”, but to impart some meaningful information that you would not otherwise find here at D D and D.
I feel truly blessed, thanks to the community that this blog has created for me, to have met people who are experts in so many different walks of life. I find what they do fascinating, as it is often so different from my own experiences – both personally and professionally.
Hollye Jacobs is JUST such a person. Hollye started her blog, The Silver Pen, as a way to discuss her journey with breast cancer – using great style and plenty of humor. Her blog is unique in that it also calls on her professional experience as a Pediatric and Adult Palliative Care Nurse and Social Worker, with graduate degrees in Bioethics and Child Development (I know, right? And she’s gorgeous too!).
photo credit: Elizabeth Messina
Hollye and I had been discussing working together, and I asked her to write about how to talk to children about a serious illness like cancer. In the last few years we’ve experienced friends’ battles with illnesses, as well as the deaths of several friends’ parents. As we are getting older we know that this will, sadly, become more the norm with Noah than it was with Chelsea and Conor, and we’ve struggled with the language to use with our little guy.
I was grateful for Hollye’s advice, which I’m so pleased to share with you all today:
Having to tell children about a breast cancer diagnosis is rotten. I mean, really, as if having breast cancer isn’t hard enough. However (based on my professional experience as a nurse and my personal experience as a patient) I know that including children in the process – from the time of a diagnosis – is the most important thing that we adults can do for them.
Children deserve open lines of truthful communication. Truthfulness is the best (and only!) way to establish and maintain a bond of trust, with everyone, but especially with children. Discussing illness honestly and openly will teach children that parents are trustworthy and that honesty is a core family value.
As much as I wish that my experience only happened to me and that I could have shielded my husband and children from the pain, the reality is that cancer happens within the ecosystem of family, friends and community. It just does. The Silver Lining is that there are indeed tools to help parents talk with children.
Here are some practical suggestions for how and when to talk with children:
1. Talk with them at the time of the diagnosis.
2. Talk frequently and briefly, letting their questions guide you.
3. Base conversation on the child’s age and sense of understanding.
4. Begin with the basics.
5. Practice what you are going to say.
6. Consider having another adult present.
7. Use clear, specific words that the child can understand.
8. Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so, but reassure them you’ll find out.
9. Look for clues they may be confused, angry, sad or withdrawn.
10. Get support. Inform your child’s teachers/counselors/coaches.
When talking with children, it is helpful to become familiar with the typical beliefs that children hold about a cancer diagnosis and how to respond to these beliefs:
1. Children often feel guilty (often silently) because they think they caused cancer in the family – by misbehaving, thinking angry thoughts, etc. Reassure them that no one is to blame for the cancer.
2. Cancer isn’t contagious, but children may think it is. Let them know that this isn’t an illness like a cold or the flu.
3. When a parent is ill, children may feel anxious about being abandoned. They need to know they will always be taken care of.
4. Children may equate cancer with death, even if the prognosis is good. Be honest about what you know. Do not make false promises , bu you can stress that doctors and scientist are working hard to treat the illness.
While we cannot protect all of the world’s children from the big and little “lumps” (pun intended) of life, the manner in which the experience is handled lays the foundation for how children will handle the inevitable future “lumps” in the road.
The Silver Lining is that children are wonderfully resilient and can survive a family’s cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. My husband and I had two choices about how we were going to handle this wretched diagnosis: from a position of fear or from one of love, from a place of truth or denial.
We chose love and truth. As a result, our children mirrored our words, actions and emotions. It was emotional. It was honest. It was hard, but we were all in it together.
I couldn’t love this more. And though (thankfully) we have not faced this situation in our own family, it is so helpful to have the words to use to explain similar situations to Noah. Hollye’s commitment to honest, straight talk – enveloped in love, support and reassurance – really resonates with me as a parent. I have such respect and admiration for this woman.
You can read more about Hollye’s experience – including practical and inspiring tips from the time of diagnosis through treatment, and into life after breast cancer – at her fabulous blog, The Silver Pen.
I would really love to hear your thoughts on this – especially if you’ve been in a similar situation in your own family. Is there anything you would add to Hollye’s advice?