When my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I didn’t give it much thought. The prognosis was very good and the treatment was quick. My three kids were pretty young at that point and I actually waited to share the news until their grandpa was well into treatment. There were a few questions which I answered and life went on.
The second time around, my dad was diagnosed with Stage II Esophageal cancer. This time, the kids were teens. So from day one, they were involved and informed. We were optimistic that the cancer could be contained. My dad, a former Marine and World War II vet, approached chemotherapy like a war and hunkered down for the fight. The following year, a PET scan and blood work came back with good news: the cancer was in remission.
It didn’t last long.
When we arrived at the point when the doctor gently suggested hospice care, we were still deep into denial. Even after the hospice care nurse left, we figured hospice was something “down the road much later.”
Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a coping mechanism that kicks in when you’re not ready to face what’s happening in front of you.
So we kept paddling down that river. Of course, I didn’t tell my kids what we were facing, because I was deep into denial myself. My dad was in a wheelchair at this point and we had a hospital bed set up in the family room.
When my brother and I took my dad to the doctor, reality finally hit. I cornered the doctor in his office and asked him how much time we had left.
“I don’t think it’s days or weeks, but maybe…months.”
Yes, reality hit.
The only way to tell the kids was to gently but clearly tell them the news. I don’t even remember how or what I said, I just remember the sad looks on their faces as the reality hit them too. They had never experienced the death of anyone close to them and this was all new.
As painful as it was to see my own kids grieve and cry, I stopped trying to be the “strong one” and just broke down too. Expressing what you feel is an important part of loss. Our greatest danger with handling the emotional pain comes from stuffing it inside and pushing it away. Instead, the healthy thing to do is to feel every aspect of it–let it out, let it flow. Go into the pain, instead of away from it. When kids see their parents handling life from a place of raw emotion with recovery, they too, learn that it’s okay to feel, to express, to reflect.
One of the most helpful things for my kids to get through the loss of Grandpa was to reflect on their best and funniest moments with him. We also talked about the dark times as well. Anything and everything was on the table to be asked. Of course, depending on the ages of your kid/s, you’ll need to adjust your language in a way they can understand and process. Keep it simple. Keep it truthful.
Death and dying tends to be a subject we want to dance around. Instead, be upfront with your kids–see it as part of the celebrating of life, the imprint of one soul on this earth.