Children can be deeply affected by the serious illness of a parent or brother or sister. Helping children to feel involved but not overwhelmed when someone in the family is seriously ill is simply ‘as big as it gets’.
If the illness is serious, if it will change their parent or sibling in some way, if it’s already making members of family worried or stressed – then it will affect the children.
There are ways of talking about what is happening, sharing feelings and preparing for the journey ahead. The aim is for the children to feel resilient and strong, and confident enough to share the natural feelings of loss when someone they care about is seriously ill.
“I am fighting this illness. I will have every treatment I can. The children don’t need to know what is happening.”
If the illness is serious, if it will change you in some way, if it is causing you to feel worried or stressed, then it will affect your children. There are no ‘right’ answers, but there are options – and there are questions your children are likely to ask (see Telling the children). There are reactions – situations you can handle and resolve. There are signs that can warn you to seek professional help. Families come in all shapes and sizes and no family is like any other. You may have a supportive partner or one who finds it hard to face what is happening. You may be facing this challenge on your own with children.
Children have an ability to deal with the truth that adults often underestimate. Not knowing can make them feel anxious or confused. Pretending to your child in any way will inevitably make things worse. The belief that children don’t know what is happening is perhaps in itself misleading. Children almost always know or, at least, know ‘something’. Partial or inaccurate information can be more worrying than the truth. If other people know about your illness, you may worry that your children may hear about it from someone other than you. Even very sad truths will be better than the uncertainty of not knowing what is happening. We cannot stop children feeling sad, but if we share our feelings and give them information, we can support them in their sadness. For more advice and guidance on when a parent or carer is seriously ill, please call to our National Helpline is available for support.
The reality of living with a serious illness, especially when the prognosis is not a good one, highlights the challenge of trying to live with uncertainty and change whilst maintaining hope. Involving children in such a complex emotional mix is daunting. Increasingly, a diagnosis of something like cancer is more about a treatable illness than a terminal condition. A great number of people recover from cancer. Even those with a terminal prognosis are surviving longer. This raises the possibility of what Jane Tomlinson CBE described as “to live what life I have left in a different way.” Holding on to hope, and living each day to the full, inspires many people to feel they have choices at a time when they could easily feel helpless and alone.
‘The Mummy Diaries’ was a moving Channel 4 series which followed the lives of five ordinary families facing the unthinkable – life without mum.
By opening the doors to the cameras, the families featured in ‘The Mummy Diaries’ gave a unique and privileged opportunity to share their sometimes heart-wrenching, but often heartwarming journeys. While this series was focused on mothers who were dying, much of the content is equally appropriate for situations when a father or sibling has a serious illness.
Please call us on 01242 515157 if you would like to order a DVD set of the full series.