33 answers

How to Explain a Terminal Illness to My 5 1/2 Year Old Son

We found out today that my mother in law has cancer. They dont yet know what kind of cancer she has but they found tumors on her skull, lungs, hip & spine. I dont think her outlook is good.

My question is do I try to explain this to my son, & if so how much do I tell him. He has a good relationship with grandma. She is the only grandmother he has, my mother died 15 years ago.

Should I wait till we fond out what her prognosis is & if she has limited time how do I explain this to him. I want him to be prepared if it is the worse case scenario, but I dont want to scare him either.

Any advise would be appreciated

Thank you
L. S

What can I do next?

So What Happened?™

First I would like to thank everyone for their responses. It is so nice to have this website to turn to people that are going through what I am going through with my children & family

My husband & I have decided to tell Mikey that grandma is very sick and is in the hospital & may be for a long time. He seemed to accept this & I dont think he understands more than that so we are going to leave it at that.

It has been a crazy week & I have been babysitting for my 5 neices & nephews aas well as my kids while my husband & his sisters stay with their mom when they are not at work. MY 2
1/2 year old had surgery on wednsday to get tubes put in her ears . This is the 2nd time she had this surgery & for the 1st year of her life had hearing loss before the tubes so I have had my hands full.

Thank you again & I will keep you all updated

Featured Answers

My sister in law and family just found out her aunt has cancer and they found a book at Barnes and Noble. It is called When Someone You Love Has Cancer. It is under $10 and is for children. They used this book with their 2 1/2 year old and their 6 year old, they thought is was useful. Hope this helps and I am sorry for what you are going through.

Hi L.,
I would suggest doing some research on this subject that is age appropriate for the level and understanding of a 5 year old. Maybe consult books at the library or a child psychologist. Good Luck
N.

Call the american cancer society. They have books for all and can be a very big help. Good luck have been down this roaad

More Answers

L.,

I am sorry to hear about your mother in law. It must be very hard for you to relive a lot of memories, of your own mother.

Last April my older son Rocky (he would have been 10 in July) passed away. We knew about 6 weeks prior that his time was uncertain. He was in the hospital for 18 days and we were able to bring him home with hospice. My younger son was turning 3 at the time and we answered questions as needed. We also had a lot of medical devices, so that was an opportunity to explain what was happening, like the oxygen helps Rocky breathe better etc, so he would not be scared of it.

If she is in the hospital, there may be a family counselor that can guide you in the right direction. (They offered that to us.) When we brought Rocky home, we had pastoral care and counselors that came to the house. I am not sure what your situation is, but they may be able to point you in the right direction. This is also a good website http://www.hospicenet.org/html/talking.html
This is also an interesting article
http://www3.baylor.edu/~Charles_Kemp/terminal_illness/chi...

Another thing to think about, is that even if you don't talk to your son about what is going on, he may sense something or over hear something. Personally I would tell your son that his grandmother is sick and then as you get more information you can gauge what he is ready for.

If you want to ask me anything, feel free to email me.
Thinking of you and your family.
A.

Hi L.,
I would suggest doing some research on this subject that is age appropriate for the level and understanding of a 5 year old. Maybe consult books at the library or a child psychologist. Good Luck
N.

I would start explaining generally about death now. It's hard for me to tell you how since I don't know if you are religious and, if so, what faith you are. However, we went through this many times since my son was 4 so I can tell you how we did it (we are Catholic). We always built religion in for everything that we wanted our son to do (i.e., when he was 2, we told him that we had to give baby Jesus a gift on his Christmas for his birthday. We told him that baby Jesus didn't have a pacifier and, to give him his pacifiers would be the greatest gift of all. Anyway, by the age of 4, he understood about heaven, angels, the devil, etc. So, when his grandmother got sick, we explained that God needed more angels to watch over all of the new babies begin born and explained how excited we all were that, because Grandma was so special, that he had chosen her. We also told him that Grandma was also excited about it because then she could be with him spiritually 24/7 and she would never have a problem getting to any of his events anymore. After talking this out a few times (short term attention span on a 4 yr old), he finally understood and was very happy & proud for her. This is a hard one to deal with; good luck!

Hello L.,
I am sorry to hear about your mother n law. From experience. I was 7 when my grandmother died and I remember seeing her sick. My mother always told me that it was her time to be with god and this was a way that was ment for her to go. The only thing I did not understand was why did she have to be sick to be with god. My mother kept it that she was sick and it may be time to be with god. Very simple did not go into detail. They had already knew that she did not have long to live before they told me. So as she got worse I was not allowed to see her all the time because my mother did not want me to be traumatized because she looked worse and worse everyday. I was very close with my grandmother she practicely was my second mother and our neighbor. I later on as I got older found out really how she died and etc. I would just make it as simple as possible and if she looks great now and does not show pain...make it the best for him. My grandmother tried her hardest never to show she was sick to me but I knew things were not and never going to be the same.

Good Luck I know it is not going to be easy..Please let us know how things go

Hi L.,
I will keep you and your family in my prayers. You have a tough journey ahead of you. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 when my kids were 5 1/2, 3 and 6 months. You can ask the social worker at the hospital for suggestions on how to open the conversation with your children. Follow it up with books as mentioned by many of your responses already. It is true that at this age, details are not necessary. Just give them information as needed at the time--such as things to expect. You can tell them now that grandma went to the doctor, and found out that she is sick. As you get new information, water it down to their level of understanding. Grandma is sick, she may lose her hair/wear a wig, she may get tired a lot, etc. If you get sad news, prepare you child for it. An organization that helped me tremendously is Gilda's Club. Their website is www.gildasclub.org They have locations in Hackensack and Linwood. Check for other locations if either of these are not convenient for you. Read their mission. It is an organization that is open to all touched by cancer--patients, family & friends. All services are free. They have programs specific to children, as well. Keep your head up. Regardless of how bad it may seem at first, cancer is not a death sentence. Wishing you & yours blessings, comfort & strength during this difficult time.

My sister in law and family just found out her aunt has cancer and they found a book at Barnes and Noble. It is called When Someone You Love Has Cancer. It is under $10 and is for children. They used this book with their 2 1/2 year old and their 6 year old, they thought is was useful. Hope this helps and I am sorry for what you are going through.

Hi L., Let me start out by saying how sorry I am about your mother in law's illness. I will keep her and your family in my prayers. My daughter was 3 when my father passed and 4 when my grandmother passed. We knew in both situations that death was going to be the end result. We only gave my daughter limited information, when it was clear from the doctor what was going to happen. I went to the library and believe it or not, there are a lot of books on how to talk to your child about death and dying. Those books saved my sanity. At the end, we told her that Jesus came to see Papa/Gram and told them that if they wanted, they could go live with him in heaven and they wouldn't be sick anymore. They would be healthy and beautiful again and able to do all the things that they love to do. We also told her that Jesus said that they could come and visit us any time we wanted in our dreams. (My daughter is almost 10 and still to this day, at least once a week tells me of the time she spent with her grandparents while she was sleeping). Even if you are not a religous person, I think all little kids believe in Angels and it might help your son to know that Grandma will be a beautiful Angel. My other suggestion would be to call a children's cancer hospital and ask someone there how they talk to the kids with the disease themselves. They might be able to recommend something for you. I hope this helps. Good luck to you and your family.

First let me say I understand what you are going through-my father had lung cancer.

I think you are right about her not having much time cancer in that many locations is past stage 3. saddly there are only 4 stages to cancer. (5 if you count the end)

get out your camcorder and have a party just because and record all the happy memories-this will help in later years.

on what to tell your son, i am not sure. you can tell him gramma is sick on the inside but i dont know how much more he would understand-and wouldnt frighten him. let him know that she loves him everyday.

i hope this helps,
K.

My mom died when my son was almost 4. We had him come visit her at the hospital and we told him that she was really sick. You might want to find a book to read to him about illness and death. After my mom died we got What is Heaven by Maria Shriver (I think) and it was okay, he was bit young for it. Don't go into details, it's very scary. I would just say she's sick and as it got closer I would say she may go to Heaven soon and be angel to watch over him. Don't say she's going to die outright, because that will just stress him out. I just told my son Grandma was really sick, and we took alot of video of them doing things together. We also did special things as soon as we knew my mom's prognosis...like a Broadway play together, Mt Fuji Japanese restaurant (where they cook the food right in front of you). When my mom did pass, we had an open casket, but closed it when my son came to the wake. I wanted him to have closure and say goodbye to grandma, but I thought it would be too confusing if he saw her thinking she was just sleeping...

I hope this helps and I'm sorry to hear your MIL has cancer.

Dear L.,

Sorry to hear about your mother in law's diagnosis. It must be difficult for your husband as well. It looks like you've been given a lot of helpful advice already. My husband passed away from melanoma when my children were 5 1/2, 5 and 2 1/2. My initial feeling was to protect them from his heartbreaking decline. Yet, when I spoke to the folks at Center for Hope, I was advised to take them to the hospital so that they could connect with where he was at the time. Similarly, they were with me at the wake and funeral. I'm sorry to be jumping to such a final phase----my point is to share the news when appropriate (doubt it would make any difference now if she's healthy) and help him make connections with what's happening with her.

L. -

My heart goes out to you & your family.

My best advice is not to share too much with him until you have more information. For now I would just explain to him that Grandma is very sick & the Doctor's are trying their best to make her feel better. After you are more sure of her prognosis...then you can decide on how much more to tell him.

Even though he is young...he hears the whispering around him & already knows "something" is going on. He may have questions or feel confused. It is better -in my humble opinion - to tell him she is sick & allow him to ask questions.

Please keep us posted on what you decide & your mother-in-law's prognosis.

God Bless!

My son lost his grandfather at 3 - so a bit younger and not as aware as a 5 year old. During the 6 months my father was sick, I read a book to him called Grandma Upstairs Grandma Downstairs by Tommie DePaolo. It is a really great story that will help both children. I also think that in the long run honesty is the best course so you can tell him she is sick and give details based on the questions your son asks. I find that the kids yusually ask what they want to know and they should be answered honestly but they do not have to know every detail you do. My son spent countless hours in the hospital and nursing home visiting my father and he remembers those times in a good way. He attended the wake and the funeral and participated in the Mass by bringing flowers to the alter. We weren't sure what to do but in the end we felt that it all worked out well and our son has special memories of his Poppy.

Hi L.-
As a person who has had many friends and family members who had short and long term illnesses I've had to explain it to children.
I tried to put it in the perspective as if they had a pet and it was sick and the vet wouldn't be able to "fix it"...
Or their teacher or school councilor might be able to offer some suggestions.

An example I've heard ina classroom was a claasssmate got very sick and won't be attending school anymore.
Sometimes if the subject of Death & dying are explained in a group of their peers them they might be able to relate to it better than a "sit down" talk.

If you have exposed her to life changes, then they might understand it despite being sad about it. It is important to try to expain that Grandma wll be in a better, happier place and despite she might not be here physically she's in your hearts and no one will ever replace her!
Maybe once the prognosis is confirmed have her talk to her about it but not too soon
Hopefully this is helpful to all of you.
I'm sorry in advance!, J.

I'm so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law! I taught school for 15 years and am currently home-schooling my four children, ages 4, 6, 12 & 13. My husband is the pastor of a church and it's never easy, but we've gone through these types of situations with a number of families.

It's been my experience with children, that they process difficult information more easily when they have the opportunity to contribute to some sort of solution.

If it were my child, I would ask him if he would be willing to draw a nice picture, make muffins (for her freezer for easy breakfast) or something else thoughtful that he can help do. I'd tell him that grandma has been feeling really sick lately and it would brighten her day. As her condition worsens, he'll begin to see and understand on his own that she's not well. Then, you can be there to answer his questions as they come, but to introduce the situation to him, I'd do it along with his contribution.

I'm so sorry about all this and hope your family draws close together to get through it.

Prayers from a stranger,
D.

Hi, my name is N.. I am a mother of 4 ages 1 to 10. I have a similar situation. My youngest was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer at just 6 months of age. This was a very difficult thing to discuss with the older kids. My experience was (with the exception of my oldest) young kids don't understand what cancer means. And everything that goes with it. We just explained that Audree was very sick and would be spending alot of time in the hospital and the doctors were gonna do all they could to make her better. We didn't explain to the younger ones that she may die because they don't understand. With all the care she recieves at home they know she is still sick but it has become a part of their routine. We just let them enjoy the time they have with her cuz we don't know how long that might be. Right know she is doing well and I hope the same for you and your family. This illness can really take a toll on a family and you don't want to get caught up in the what if's. Be strong and have faith. Best of luck to all of you.

When my cousin's little boy was diagnosed with a terminal illness my children were 8 and 13. We told them he had an illness and that is why he looked different, wasn't able to walk anymore, etc.. When they asked when he was going to get better, we told them he wouldn't, that it wasn't that kind of illness, and he'd continue have affects. The older one knew what that meant, the younger one didn't, but didn't ask any other questions. They were prepared, but didn't really know it, and when he passed 9 months later it was difficult, but kids are resilient. We spent as much time with him as we could, loved him and ate him up for as long as we could and had no regrets. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. You don't need to spell it out for them to understand. I'm sorry for your family.....God Bless all of you through this difficult time. N.

I am so sorry for your family. I would wait to tell him until you have all the information. This way you can decide what he truly needs to know. I would try to give the basic information, like Grandma is sick and isn't going to get any better. And we only have a little time left with her. Kids aren't stupid (not that I'm saying your is), but he will ask what he wants to know. Sit down with him give him the basics and let him ask away.

L.,
My heart goes out to you and your husband.
I have a 6 1/2 year old son and an almost 13 year old daughter. My father is suffering from a very rare and deadly disorder.
My children have an incredibly close relatinship with my parents, especially my father.
I struggled with what to tell them for months. My daughter began asking me what was wrong with him. I finally (on a day I was feeling strong) sat down with her and told her about what was going on without being too negitive and avoiding the many horrors he will face as this progresses. My son however is different because of the age. I frankly do not know how to talk to him about this. I don't want him to be afraid, and I don't want to negitively effect his relationship with my father.
It is amazing to me however how the two of them look at this situation. My son LOVES to help "poppei" do things my father can no longer do. My daughter helps him all the time. I think it is teaching them compassion and they feel good about being helpful. My daughter recently told me that "poppei" was getting older(75 this year) and "slowing" down. I don't think she's really thought about him dying, but for her he is living.
I am not hiding anything from either of them, but rather opeing the door slowly so they can begin to accept the reality. I avoid using the word "sick" simply b/c when they are "sick" they go to the Dr and get better, and I don't want them to fear being "sick". I don't use technical phrases or medical jargon with them. I have directly avoided telling my daughter the name of what is wrong with him b/c knowing her she will goggle it and what she finds will devestate her.
Be strong, talk privately with your pediatrician, or your school psychologist. Ask them for guidence. Find out what is wrong first, and start slowly with what you tell him. Children view the world very differently then adults do, and process these things differently as well.
Allow your son to enjoy and cherish this time with her. Time is a gift to be savored. None of us know what will happen, how it will happen, or when it will happen. Doctors can tell us what is likely to happen, but they can't be sure, neither can we.
Good luck! Let me know how she is.
S.

Hi L.,

First off, sorry to read about your MIL's diagnosis. I believe that the sooner you broach the topic the better. It is probably not a good idea to "drop the entire bomb" at one time, but rather, just to say that grandma is facing an illness and we don't know what the future might bring and let them ask the questions. Answer the questions they ask truthfully, but don't drag the entire answer out.

They will eventually ask if grandma will die. The answer to that is that "we don't really know yet, but we won't keep it a secret if and when we find out."

Hope this helps and I wish you luck and strentgth during a difficult time.

Mike B.
____@____.com

So sorry to hear of the diagnosis.
There is a book called "the fall of freddie the leaf". It is a book I received when I was in first grade (so many years ago) and my grandfather died. Since then I have given it to families with kids who have experienced a loss and it has been well liked. It is about the seasons in relation to the seasons of life. I really recommend it. I am sure there are a million and one other books out there. Just introducing the concept of death is a great start. I am hopeful that he learns about dying through the books and doesn't experience it with loved ones for many years to come.

Hi L.,

I am sorry to hear about your mother in law. First, I would get a prognosis (wait to hear what the doctor says). Then considering what time is left tell your son the truth, that Nana/Grandma - whatever he calls her is very sick, or has a big booboo. If you are religious I would tell him that she will be going to heaven (or did go to heaven) to live with God and watch over her family. I believe kids should be told the truth in a way they can understand. As a further note, if there is going to be a viewing and service you need to ask yourself if he is ready for this. Possibly going to just the service or just the viewing - let them go to one if possible, they need to say goodbye too. Parents need time to grieve too and if he sees you crying he may get upset - although he must know that you will miss this person. My pediatrician helped me when both my parents passed away. My two children were different ages at each death but they both new about the illness and death. When I was really too sad I went somewhere to be alone for a short time so they would not see me sobbing - but they new I was sad. They still speak of Nana and Granpa in heaven and that they are happy and healthy. I would speak to your pediatrian. They have the well being of your children at heart in all matters.

Good Luck & God Bless You All,

C. J.

Sorry to hear about Grandma.....She will be in my prayers.

I don't think very young children can process or should have to process the details of Cancer. But I do think they will hear things about it and have questions that should be answered...as close to the truth as possible but also kept as simple as possible.
I tend to think they only need to know that Grandma is very sick. And when it comes to Grandma's passing, should be told she went to heaven. I do think they should be allowed to go to the funeral if they want to....to say good bye...cry and mourn the loss with the rest of the family.

Don't put too much on him too fast, but let him ask questions about what he observes and then answer them honestly. You mother in law will show symptoms of decline in her health--weight loss, decreased stamina, inability to do things with him that she used to do, etc. When those things come up, explain that Grandma is very sick and that she is not able to do the things she used to do, even though she loves him and would like to be able to be with him. The subject of what happens when people are very sick will come up naturally and gradually and then be honest with him. It's also ok for him to see you and your husband's sorrow--that's how he can feel ok expressing his own. Just be gentle with yourselves...God bless.

Hi L.,
First, I'm so sorry for this experience for all of you; it is a terrible thing to go through. As for your 5.5 year-old boy, I think it's important to take into account how in tune with things he is. We have one child who has talked like he was 10 since he was three, and when we had to deal with this issue, it was hard for us to remember that he couldn't process as much as it sounded like he could. Our other child has a language disorder (and was younger) so we couldn't know how much he was getting at the time. My advice would be less is better. "Grandma is sick" is likely sufficient until you know that death is imminent (sorry to put it that way) when you then have no choice but to pull out the "d" word. Our older son has been somewhat obssessed with death and God since he was two or three (when he had a 6.5 year-old cousin die of lymphblasic lymphoma and leukemia) so he asked a ton of questions, and we answered the minimum possible without lying to him, and told him we could talk about it more as he got bigger.
Best of luck, and I'm sorry for your situation.
E.

What a difficult situation you are faced with! My daughter's teacher was just diagnosed with breast cancer so I have just done some homework. There are several children's books that discuss cancer including one that seems very highly recommended called "The Paper Chain". The American Cancer Society also has several brochures to help talk about cancer and there are local counselors on Long Island that offer free services to help a family deal with the news of a loved one having cancer. I hope these help. My best to you and your family during this difficult time.

Hi L.,

The American Cancer Society has some good resources for talking about cancer with kids, it helped me when I had cancer and my kids were 7 and 3 years old.

I would say to answer his questions as honestly as possible but until the end is near, it really isn't necessary to tell him that grandma is going to die in 6 months or whatever. You don't know when it's going to happen and if it's months and months, that knowledge can make young kids very anxious. Just make sure if you can that he has enough time for his goodbye but dont' overload him with information. He doesn't need to know that she is terminal if her passing is likely months away (that's like when parents tell their 2 year old that they are having a baby when the mom is one month pregnant).
Good luck and I am so sorry for the sad news about your MIL's illness

A friend of mine suggested this to me: Watch Animal Planet with him. There are shows that show animals dying, etc. It opens a discussion about the natural order of things and can help him to understand that death is a natural part of life. From there, you can relate it to his grandmother's situation once you know more on her condition.

My condolences and good luck to you...

Call the american cancer society. They have books for all and can be a very big help. Good luck have been down this roaad

Your children are affected by everything that happens in the family. Being honest can be painful. Nevertheless, dishonesty, even with the honorable goal of protecting the children, may be the single biggest mistake you as a parent can now make. There may be nothing more important in their lives than that they continue to trust the two people they love most.

Children are stronger than you think. Your children love you. Because they love you, they can handle what is coming; they are much stronger than you think possible. What we must do now is build on that love and so build that strength.
Three things to tell your children
Tell them Grandma is seriously ill.
Tell them the name of your disease.
Tell them your best understanding of what may happen.
However grave the illness, hope comes along with every diagnosis. And it is neither wrong nor dishonest to pass this hope along to your children.

All life is terminal. Even if one's own timetable is tragically shortened by a medical diagnosis, the end is not yet. Don't try to shield your children from making the most of that time."

Explain the disease on the child's level
Tell them three things, and keep telling them:
Nothing they did caused the disease
They can't catch the disease from you

Making time for your kids when you don't have time:
Set aside a time - ten minutes at night around bedtime and bath-time
Try to keep doing the family things you all do together: take a bike ride, walk to the park, etc.
Important warning signs that a child needs help:
Major changes or disturbance in sleep.
Major changes or disturbance in eating.
Appearance of fears that weren't there before.
Developmental trouble: loss of skills, falling grades, etc.

I don't know if I would necessarily explain it as such . But without knowing if you've ever spoken about Baby Jesus and angels it's difficult for me to say for you. If you haven't now would be a good time to teach your children the basics in a simple way. I've seen in my church children having more of an understanding than given cretit for. And learning of how God needs Nanna and Pop Pop angels to help out with other little angels while they still can see past the clouds to earth can give a beautiful picture of not death but of moving to a new home. I hope this helps and also gives you comfort as well.

My mother was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia right before Thanksgiving 2006 when my daughter was about 3 1/2. She spent weeks at a time in the hospital getting chemo and ultimately had a bone marrow transplant. Her attitude the whole time was that if she listened to her doctors' instructions, she was going to beat this, and being completely unwilling to allow the thought of the loss of my mother, I adopted that attitude as well. Your MIL's cancer sounds like it is pretty extensive, but until you know the type, how fast it's growing, and what the prognosis and/or treatment options are you just have to wait for more information.

My best advice to you, regardless of the prognosis, is to allow your son to spend as much time as possible with his grandmother (with the hospital and her own permission). My daughter donned hospital mask, gown, and gloves to visit my mom because most of her treatment was in the bone marrow ward of the hospital. Children are a ray of sunshine. Your MIL may not be able to interact with him, depending on how she is feeling, so bring things he likes to do - color, play with cars, even watch a kid movie - no depressing ones. Be honest with him that she is very sick, and that the doctors will do what they can for her, and if the prognosis is very bad, let him know that doctors can't fix everything, but that they still help.

I don't know if what I am going to say is the right thing to do but it is what I am doing.

Almost 7 years ago my mom was given 6 months to live. They thought it was primary lung cancer. Turns out is was the breast cancer returning after being cancer free for 10 years. She is stage four and is doing quite well. She does not look or at like a cancer paitent. The treatment keeping her cancer at bay has apparently stopped working and she has now has new activity in her spine. I am not quite sure what the current prognososis is but it has been on my mind the past few days.

My kids are very close to her and I have decided that it is best not to say anything just yet. My daughter is 5, my son is 4 and youngest son is 2. They just do not have the ability to comprehend what cancer is and what it means. They do not have the ability to process such information. Either it will get pushed aside and it be no big deal or it will be internalized and grow like the tumors themselves in their imaginations.

I was 10 when my mom was first diagnosed. I didn't benefit from knowing. It had only made me live in fear every day of losing her for 26 years.

I do not know the severity in your situation but just know that cancer is not always an immediate death sentence. Cancer will probably eventually claim her life, but she may very well have some very good life ahead of her.

So wait as long as you can to tell your children. Let them enjoy their grandmother with all the love that they always have known without fear. That is an extraordinary gift that you can give them and her. You'll know when the time is right.

My prayers go out to your family. God bless.

A.

As a cancer survivor, I have found the American Cancer Society as a wonderful support system FOR EVERYONE. You can call 24/7 and ask them anything. They can direct you or even send you information for free on how to talk to your son. Their number is 1800-ACS-2345. Also a book called What is Heaven, written by Maria Shriver is a great resource - Check out the book stores and if your son is in school don't forget to let his teacher know what is going on. They too may have a support system in their guidance department.

The best to you and your family.

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