Co-authored by Alyssa Reddi and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
“Why did my dad get cancer?” This was the question my niece Josie asked on the way home from apple picking one day. Over a year had gone by since her father had passed away after a terminal illness. This was the first time she had asked me about him in a while.
The questions didn’t stop: “What is cancer? How do you get cancer? Will I get cancer? I don’t want to get cancer!”
Josie experienced the loss of her father at age 5. Her mother explains that Josie was brought to the hospital for a regular visit with her father. Moments before her arrival, her father went into cardiac arrest and passed away. In her mother’s words:
“Josie was scared. She looked at her dad and wanted to leave the room. Then she became curious and wanted to see him again, and this time she was braver. When it was time to leave, she said goodbye and she gave him a hug.”
Experiencing death at any age comes with questions. However, children typically don’t have a clear understanding of death until they reach the age of 9, and each child copes differently. A 5-year-old like Josie processes the concept of death differently than a teenager would.
Hazel was 16 when she was told that her father had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal disease of the nervous system. About the experience, she recounts:
“I was very shocked. Prior to the diagnosis, my father told me he had an aggravated nerve in his shoulder. Then suddenly he began losing his ability to walk. It was all happening so quickly, and I felt like I was not able to react.”
While many might imagine tearfulness or anger, confusion and shock are more typical reactions when children are told that their parent is dying. Nicky Seligman is a counsellor at Heart House Hospice’s Helping Us Understand Grief (HUUG) program for children. She explains:
“With children, when information is hard to process, they really need time to soak it in”. Often, parents and counsellors need to repeat the news multiple times before the child understands. Seligman adds: “That might be because the kids have a hard time understanding the gravity of the situation.”
Leslie Balmer, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adults who have suffered the death of a loved one, echoes Seligman’s statement about kids needing time to process death:
“Maybe the child attends the funeral, they go to the graveside and do all of those things. Then the next day, they sit down with their dad for breakfast and say, ‘Yeah, I know mommy’s dead, but when is she coming home?’”
Children who lose their parents at a young age may go through a lifelong grieving process. Yet, when the loss is not sudden or unexpected, Seligman states that there is “this beautiful window to engage in legacy work with the children and families. Those can be forever memories that you can create with the person who’s dying, if they’re able, as well as the children.”
Children have a special quality that allows them to handle grief better than we might think. Balmer explains: “Kids have this capacity to jump in and out of their grief.” This concept is sometimes referred to as ‘grief puddles’. Children may jump into a ‘grief puddle’ and be profoundly upset, and moments later they can jump out and return to their daily activities.
There is no time limit on grief. While we may wish to speed up the process so that children return to their ‘normal’ lives, sometimes the best thing you can do is be present. Hazel shares what helped her:
“The best thing you can do is be present, in the moment, and try to be there and comfort the loved one as much as possible.”
Seligman agrees: “The question of ‘what can I do’ can be so overwhelming for an adult, let alone a child. Just stepping in and showing your support by being present will make things much easier for them to accept.”
Today, my niece is doing better. Sometimes questions about cancer come out of the blue. Sometimes, she remembers things about her dad with excitement, like his love of chocolate cake, and shares them with anyone around who will listen. And sometimes, she gets sad. But there is comfort in knowing that simply being there to listen to her questions and memories will help her.
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.