Lately, many people have been asking me how we told our kids Scott had cancer. I know they’re hoping for a book reference, or maybe they’re just curious, whatever the reason, I do my best to answer them. When we told our kids, there was no book; no instruction manual. It was just us, two parents who were given the task of breaking this news to a seven and five-year old.
Why did we tell them about the cancer when it’s such a scary word? Is a question I always hear. Easy, we live in a small town and our neighbors knew before it was on Facebook and before we told them. Word traveled fast and we didn’t want our kids to hear it from anyone other than us. We waited until after Christmas, but before school started again. We asked our family not to say anything about it until we told them our kids knew.
A challenging aspect to this task was telling my son, who has high functioning autism. If we lied to him, he wouldn’t trust us; at the time, he had very little trust in us, despite the years we spent telling him truths in order to earn it. We also had to keep in mind, he was seven, and even the smartest of kids is not quite ready for what cancer truly means.
Below, is a skeletal conversation we had with our kids. It includes words we said and questions they asked. I’m keeping it very black and white, because the real emotions behind this moment belong to us. Someday, my kids might tell their own story about this time, but it’s not up to me to do that.
In the end, our plan was not to have a plan, but to the tell the kids the truth as simply as we could. We wanted to give them a chance to ask questions.
We sat on our favorite spots on the couch, cuddled as a family. The lights were dim and the Christmas tree was lit. Sitting under our favorite blanket, I said, “Dad has been sick lately and he had surgery so the doctors could find out what was wrong with him.” The kids stared at me like, “Duh.” “The doctors found cancer.”
“The good news is that they will try to destroy the cancer in my body, so I might lose my hair. I’ll probably be really tired and I might not be able to work very much,” Scott said.
“But people die from cancer,” a child said.
“Yes, but some people don’t die. We don’t know the future, but we are so thankful that Dad has a kind of cancer the doctors have a plan to fight.”
“Will you die?”
“We all will die someday, but until that day comes, we live the best we can. We need to lean on each other and God.”
“Why can’t they just take out the cancer?”
“Sometimes they can take it out, but Dad’s cancer is in a spot that the doctors can’t take out. Taking out the cancer would be very bad for his body. So, the doctors will give him medicine to hopefully kill the cancer cells.”
By the end of our conversation, we wanted to make sure our young kids knew these things:
1. Ask US your questions and we would do our best to answer them.
2. Feel your feelings. However you feel is OK and chances are, we feel those feelings too. We also asked them to share their strong feelings with us, so we could try to help them.
3. Parts of lives will change, but many things will stay the same. We made sure to list the MANY things that wouldn’t change for them.
Now, almost two years later, I’ve reflected on how we told our kids this sad, life-changing news. I don’t regret how we did it, because it was the best we knew at the time. Our kids have had many feelings since this day. Every day is a new battle, but deep down, I know that we are all doing our best to continue to live, despite this dark spot in our lives.