How to Tell Child Parent Is Dying...

Updated on January 15, 2013
L.D. asks from Greenwood, SC
31 answers

My husband has been battling colorectal cancer for a year now. This past Wednesday we found he is terminal and we only have a short amount of time with him. We don' t know how to tell our 5 yr old son. He loves his daddy very much. He still believes daddy is going to get better and it breaks my heart. He also lost his papa 6 mth. ago and still isn't' t over that. if anyone has been through this and has any words of wisdom please share. Thanks.

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answers from Minneapolis on

I'm sorry to hear of this. I've seen this book recommended in similar situations and it gets great reviews:
"Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" by
Bryan Mellonie, Robert Ingpen

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answers from Philadelphia on

I am so sorry for you all. There is nothing I can say but I would ask the doctor if they are putting him in hospice care. Then ask the hospice staff for some help. Kids can handle much more than we think, and he will have to handle the loss of his father anyway. Let him get the chance to say goodbye.

Has your husband still got the strength to make him videos or write him letters for the future?? That might help you all.

My condolences.

13 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I didn't even want to click on this, so very heart-breaking.

I have no experience or advice, just wanted to send my heartfelt sympathy.

I am so very sorry L..

~Have you taken lots of home videos? Maybe your husband can make a special video just for the kiddo?

11 moms found this helpful


answers from Louisville on

When I talk to the siblings of kiddos in my unit who are dying, I just try to be very concrete, and avoid euphamisms. I ususally sit down with the child and say, "You know your brother/sister has been very sick. Unfortunately, nothing we can do will help anymore, and he/she is going to die. We will help keep him/her from hurting until she dies. We're all very sad that he/she is going to die, and it's ok for you to feel sad, too. It's also ok for you to feel angry about it." Then we let the kids ask all the questions they want, and try to validate their feelings. And we encourage the kids to spend time with the sick patient.

I think the more concrete you can be, the better. If dad wants to be involved in telling kiddo the actual news, then that's great - he can help reassure kiddo that dad is being taken care of, that dad is not hurting, and that just because dad is dying, kiddo is still safe. It's very important that kiddo is reassure that he is still safe and is not going to die, too. Time with his father will be important, but don't force it.

I wish peace for your husband as he goes through this transition, and peace for you and your kiddo as you all go through it to.

10 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

I have not much advice, just sympathy.

My husband's cousin adopted a little girl who's mom had been her best friend and had passed away. Before the biomom passed away, she bought Hallmark cards for each major event in her daughter's life, 16th birthday, graduation, wedding, birth of first child, etc, and the cousin/adopted mom is holding on to them until the appropriate times to give them to her. I thought that was a lovely gesture.

10 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

My cousin's husband died with colorectal cancer several years ago. They did family pictures, had a very nice one done before he couldn't sit up, and he wrote notes, letters for certain ages for the kids, etc. The kids are now 16 and 18 or something close to that. They still have very good memories of their dad since he took that time. IF your husband isn't able please let him talk all he can to your son and tell him how he loves him, will miss him, what he thinks about him and things he'll remember. Tell him sometime God has plans we don't understand. Be honest and open is my advice. I am so very sorry you are having to face this loss and I will pray for you and your family. Do you have a pastor who could spend some time with you all too? Hospice helped so much when my dad died with colon cancer. Contact them and they are so helpful and part of your family almost in a time like this.
The person I mentioned did what Sara B said with cards. When his daughter gets married she already has a card and message waiting for her to read, open, etc. and all events were planned for in this way. Such a great idea.

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Tampa on

I don't have any advice but want to send you and your son a big hug! I can't imagine how hard this is. Prayers are with your family

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Phoenix on

I am so very sorry that you have to go through this. My brother in law passed away about six years ago from pancreatic cancer. My nieces were 13 and their brother was 16. I would have your son spend as much time as possible with dad. I agree that if possible, help him to write some letters. Maybe he can write letters for things like college graduation, wedding, big future events, so he knows that he will be there for your son on those days? Talk about fun times that you all had together, help cement those great memories. I know my nieces and nephew were much older, but we just tried to follow their lead- hugs when they needed hugs, talk when they needed to talk, do fun stuff together when they were up for it. We tried, and still try, to keep all of the family memories with us as we move forward into the future without trying to live in the past.
Sending you lots and lots of love from our family to yours.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from San Diego on

I am so, so sorry.. I cannot even imagine what you are going through. The only thing I can think of is to talk to someone from hospice and have them refer your family to a grief counsler. If hubby is able, have him write letters to your son and start a scrap book of daddy and son together. Your son will cherish this forever. I will pray for your family. Again, I am so sorry you are dealing with this.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Hartford on

I'm very sorry to hear the news. The hospitals have grief counselors and support staff for these situations to help guide you through it, so I would talk to your husband's nurse case managers to get to the appropriate staff members in hospice.

You can also find some help through the American Cancer Society.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

Talk to hospice and support groups as they will have good suggestions. A children's book that explains death might be a good start.

Please do have your husband make videos or write letters to your son. Have your husband choose special objects (personal ones) to be passed on to your son as he grows up. (For example, he could write a letter about marriage and you could give him your husband wedding ring in case he wanted to wear it once he marries). Always be willing to talk about your husband and keep telling the same stories (funny or happy ones) so that your son has a chance to keep those memories. Keep pictures around.

Please also look into support groups for both you and your son. My father died when I was young and this was a long time ago when therapy was not an option. I so very much wish my family had had some kind of help.

God bless you all. You are in my prayers.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I am so sorry... your family is experiencing a loss like no other. I haven't dealt with the loss of a parent... grandparents...friends..but not a parent/ spouse....

I would be as honest as possible. Week out the advice of a the hospital And find out about Colorectal support groups that might specialize in young children.

I truly sorry.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Jacksonville on

I am so sorry for all of you.
If you have a clergy person you can talk to, I would. I think Sharon E also made a good suggestion about asking for help from Hospice.

I will pray for all of you.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

I am so sorry to hear this devastating news. I am not sure how to tell him but I would definitely ask the hospice nurses for guidance on this. My daughter was 3 years old when my son, her brother passed away. I can tell you that kids are amazingly resilient. The best thing you can do for your son however is for you to be ok too and to get help for yourself if you need it. Sending you hugs and prayers.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Omaha on

I don't really have any other suggestions, but to concur with the others to look for guidance from hospice and your church. I think if your husband is able writing letters, having a picture, even doing a video for your son are great ideas as well.
My thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.
God Bless!

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

The previous poster had very good ideas. Another one is to have your husband as much as he is able to record some storys on cd's and also some videotaped. your son will love having them. there is a book that they have at hallmark that is called a fathers legacy. it is pretty much a blank book with a sentence at the top that goes something like "when I was young my mom used to make................" or "my favorite sport as a kid was.........." and then he would fill in the blank.

As hard as it will be have you husband just talk into the microphone and during that have him say things like some day mommy might meet a new daddy and that will be ok. Right now it will seem like it will never be ok. But your son needs to know that years down the road it will be ok.

also I am not sure if your son is in school yet. But they have at most schools a social worker. She will know how to start this conversation. Also your priest / pastor will also have resources.

I am so very sorry for your husband and this diagnosis. My daughters ex died very suddenly of a heart attack. there was no time to say goodbye or plan. If there is any sort of silver lining it is that your husband will have time to say goodbye. Take your son and do some fun things if your husband is up to it at all. Those will be good memories for your son.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I'm so sorry for this news. Is your husband using Hospice care? If so, remember that they are there for all of you and they have been through this before. They can guide you in how to tell your son.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

I am so sorry you have to go thru this. I know up here there is a group called "healing Hearts" for children that are experiencing the death of a lived one. Not sure if this is a national group, but they do amazing things with children that are hurting. Hugs and prayers your way.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Atlanta on

I am so, so very very sorry for your impending loss. This must be so difficult for everyone involved. Everyone has already given you good advice, so I will only add that you are in my prayers.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Oklahoma City on

My heart breaks for you. I am so sorry your family is going through this.

I don't know how. I do recommend you sign up for Hospice, they are trained in how to do this. They do it all the time while they help the families through this.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Austin on

AngieOPlasty, said it perfectly..

Also here in Austin we have Hospice of Austin. They have special help just for kids. They have sessions, gathering and in the summer a free camp for the children. It has been recognized for this work. See if there is one there in your area..

They can help your child through this transition beginning immediately through his death and after, for as long as is needed.

And mom, I encourage you to not forget yourself. This is so hard at any point, but after all of this time and now trying to be strong for your child, you also need to seek help and comfort. i am sending you strength.. and all of you peace.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Miami on

L., I just saw your question. Please accept my sincerest condolences. I'm so sorry.

The hospital has a social worker assigned to you. This is one of their services, helping you with your children. Please talk to her about this and get them to help you and your son through this.

I would ask for support group information as well, and make use of them in the near future. If you are supported, it's easier to support your little one. Remember that it takes a lot of time, and he will need it. Having a grief counselor work on an ongoing basis with both of you will really help.


3 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I am so sorry you, your son, your husband and the rest of your family have to go through this. No 5 year old should have to lose a parent, it's just not fair.
I'm praying for a miracle for your family that God would put his hands upon your husband and heal him of this awful disease, I pray that it would be miraculously gone and the doctors would be wrong, and that you won't have to have that talk with your precious son! Amen.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

First and foremost I want to just send my sincere sympathy to you and your family. I can't even imagine what I would do in this situations or where to even begin with what to say to your son. How devastating. My thoughts and prayers are with you, your son, husband and family.

I don't how religious you and your family are, but I was recently following a blog of a wonderful father who was also given a terminal diagnosis. His blog is wickedly real and intense, so may not be something you are up to reading, but maybe another family would be willing too.

there are many discussions about his children and his thoughts, and how they are 'living' with the time he had left. Sadly he passed he few months ago.....I'm leaving his link in hopes you can find some comfort in that you are not alone, and hoping in some way his writings can help you and your son as well. I will leave you with his post about how to parent through cancer...altho' this was obviously way before his terminal diagnosis, I think he has some very valuable information. From there if you feel up to it you can browse the rest of his blog. HTH

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

I'm so sorry.
When we knew my stepfather was not going to be cured, we let our son (they were very close) know that the doctors were trying everything they knew and using all of the medicine they had, but sometimes (rarely, certain illnesses), although we wanted him to be cured, sometimes people are just too sick for the medicine to work.
It might be good to lay that foundation for him.
Lifetimes IS a wonderful book, and it talks about all lives having a beginning, a middle, and an end.
You can also talk about how it's what's in between the beginning and end that makes a life special, not the length.
Again, so sorry, my prayers and sympathy to your family.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

I'm so sorry to hear this. Just a thought/suggestion, please look into alternate therapies for healing cancer: Gerson Therapy, The Bruzynski least read about them...I'm sure this is a lot to handle right now, but couldn't let you not know about these therapies. I wish the best for you and your family and will be praying for you all!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Las Vegas on

I am so sorry for the both of you. Last year I called and talked to our Priest about this, although it was a grandparent not the parent and it was after the fact.

He told me to be honest and upfront. He said if it something that she will hear from someone else, be sure we (the parents) are the one she hears it from first. Explain that we are not meant to live forever and everyone has their time. We don't know when that is. He reminded me, it is okay to cry and cry with them. It shows love.

As for the burial or otherwise, if you believe, you can explain the saying Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, simply means: "We come from dust, and to dust we return."

Monday I will take my mother in for a follow up test. She has been in remission for about 4 years now. My daughter had the urge to have dinner with her grandmother and as much as I just wanted to stay home, I got up and took her because I thought I should count each day with her as a blessing. I have been talking to her about not knowing when our time is up lately, as this is the grandmother she is most close to. I do fear the day.

Best wishes.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Milwaukee on

I have no idea what to tell you but the PPers suggestions sound good. I really just wanted to post that I am so incredibly sorry that this is happening to your family. Sorry to each one of you.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Columbus on

Arrrrr.... can't even fathom. I am heartbroken - for you all.

I haven't read all the responses, but will expand on the couple I did read: videos, advice for your son at different points in his life.... something that will connect his father with him in the future, at birthdays, etc. Your husband can dictate to you the thoughts, you can then put them into 'readable' form in the future. This will be a way for your son to have contact w/ his daddy as he ages. I currently have 2 dd's, and write them letters that they can have, my thoughts on how they are, what dreams I have for them at this time, etc, that they can read in the future, whether I'm here or not.

Praying for you - I am so very very sorry. Pryaing for your strength



answers from Atlanta on

First and foremost, I am so sorry you have to go through this. It's heartbreaking. We're here for you.

So below the first link is to the best books for kids (and parents) on how to prepare and deal with death. There are many many more too.

Next, I saw a story about a summer camp specifically for kids dealing with the death of a loved one. I can't remember if it was dateline or the today show but it certainly looked like a wonderful place to heal. You should contact them soon. I'm sure they would be able to help even more than we can right now.

Again, I am so sorry. I couldn't imagine having to have this conversation with my 5 & 7 year olds. You're in my thoughts and I'm sending positive energy your way. Stay strong, we love you.



answers from Atlanta on

I am so sorry this is happening. I will pray for y'all.

I saw somebody mentioned the hospital social worker can help. Another option is hospice care. They also have the experience and resources to help children.

Next question: My Mom Is Dying