Terminal Illness

Updated on September 24, 2008
T.S. asks from Sunland, CA
5 answers

Hi Moms,

My father-in-law is terminal with cancer. My adult children and my 15 year old know the details and circumstances of his illness and realize that he is dying.

My 5 1/2 year old knows Grandpa is not feeling well and weak. I'm not sure how much information we need to give him. My heart is saying not to tell him his Grandpa is dying and just keep it at the not feeling well and weak explanation, then give him more information as the process continues.

The last time my kids had to deal with a dying grandparent is when my mother died (cancer again AAAGGGG!!) 13 years ago, in another state so they saw their Grandma for the last time 4 months before she passed away, and she looked pretty good. So that situation is a little different that this one and I'm just wanting to do the best for my little guy.

Of course I'm always looking for input from all, but especially those who have been in the same situation.

Thank you in advance!!

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answers from Los Angeles on

First, I'm so sorry for your situation. How painful for you to go through this with your family after losing your mom to cancer, as well.

As far as your question goes, I've been on both ends of this situation myself: as a mom and as a child.

I can tell you from my own experience that it works well to be quite open about it all. If you feel comfortable, it's a good idea to start gently informing your child of the facts of the mortal body. Don't sugar-coat it but don't be negative either-- take the uplifting bits, the positives, the circle of life approach.

Slowly allow your child to digest these concepts, asking his questions whenever they pop into his mind. One of those questions will assuredly be, "Is Grandpa going to die?" And you need to be honest. Let your child talk to his grandfather as openly as the grandfather can withstand. Let this first introduction to the mortality of our bodies be as honest and intimate as it can be.

My mother did this with me, against all advice, when I was 4. As I grew up, I was the only kid I knew who didn't fear death. I felt completely at peace with it.

Now my children (ages 5 to 8) have just been to their first family funeral, and they, too, seem have a good outlook. They also just lost a 5-year-old friend to cancer (so heartbreaking) and, while they each crossed a new threshold of emotional pain, they still seem to be very balanced and healthy in their outlooks. Knowing what was happening didn't 'prepare' them for the pain -- but it laid the foundation for healing.

Placing flowers atop the coffins before they were lowered seemed particularly important to my kids -- they're still talking about it and their little conversations sound so peaceful and resolved. They do dread the pain of saying goodbye, but the closure of actually getting to say it -- and say it thoroughly -- has been integral to their grieving process. Not one of them has had nightmares or fears since the funerals, I'm happy to say.

As for me, the good effects of my early introduction to death have kept me afloat over 40 years and 19 funerals (no, that's not a typo, sad to say). Mom took a lot of flack for letting me go to Granny's funeral, but it changed my life for the better. In a way, it was Granny's last gift to me.

When mom died (cancer) she again showed me the grace within the horror and lifted me up when I might have fallen. It's the last lesson we get to pass on in this life. Done well, it can make someone else's life a less anxious journey.

One last thing: One member of our family wrote short letters ahead of time for the younger children. She knew that we (young ones) had a long life ahead of us in which we might regret missing our chance to talk to her, to ask her things, to know her. She wrote the good bits down for us. The questions we might not have until we were young mothers ourselves, she answered. It has been a lovely gift.

Hang in there. :-)

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

My mother in law died 5 years ago. We took care of her in our home for the last 9 months of her battle with lung cancer. My three boys were almost 5, 9 and 11 at the time. I don't think we specifically told them that she was terminal until the last few weeks. Though they knew she had cancer and was doing chemo therapy. Of course, if they asked we told them as much information as they seemed to need at the time.

When she died in our home, each boy handled it differently. My oldest needed to say goodbye but the two younger boys chose not to see her in her final hours. I had some good books for young kids on the subject that I no longer have. Sometimes I felt cruel having my children experience death of a loved one in their own home. However, it was also an amazing privilege to spend so much time together not only with their grammy but also all the extended family that came to visit during her final months. The boys understood that having grammy at home made her happy and more comfortable than being alone in her home or in a hospital. They loved her and wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. Death is a natural process and kids sometimes handle it better than adults do. May your father in law be surrounded by loved ones and go peacefully.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Hi T.,

I feel for you, my dad passed away in May from cancer and it was devestating. I didn't even know how to tell my 15 and 10 year old about it, but I knew I had to explain. I gave them all the details and explain that grandpa wasn't going to be around and why, both of them were very sad but I told them that he was in so much pain and once he passed he wouldn't feel pain anymore and then when it happened I told them he is an angel now watching over us. I hope this helps.

take care,


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answers from Los Angeles on

I believe in raising my children to self thinking and self reliant ( be your own counsel) this requires to always tell them the truth about the common taboo subjects like sex, money, death and problems in general.

If you cover it up in to easy to swallow stuff you loose their trust, they can perceive that you are not telling all, and will begin deciding that you are not safe to tell the truth to either. this wont really be a problem until later where they are also just trying to not upset you or ruffle your feathers ( like you are doing now) And by then ( teen and adult years) you wont ever be able to guide them because they have this inner urge to protect you from the truth as well as an idea that you dont trust their ability to handle reality...

I would tell; as much as possible in laymen terms. and describe death as a natural even wonderful last stop in a life time. good luck :)

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

Dear T.,
It seems with your wisdom and sensitivity everything will be all right ...and I think you have the right idea by giving information as things go along-- even though frank questions from a 5- year-old should be answered honestly and carefully.
Any simply stated religous, biological, philosophical or spiritual explanation of afterlife can be a little helpful to people of all ages whether they are presented as possibilities or realities.
Speaking of Grandpa's spirit, cosmic power or even biological return to the earth will increase everybody's bond and lighten the pain ( as Grandpa would like )

1 mom found this helpful
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