Communicating with Children
How do we help our adult children feel comfortable with their dying father and his right to die with dignity?

It’s not surprising that we have trouble finding the best way to talk and think about death when we face it in our own lives. Few of us have gone through it or seen others go through it. Some general concepts can help people and families find the approach that suits them the best.

It’s important to remember that there’s no one right or wrong way to talk and think about death. Each family has its own culture and its own ways of doing things such as communicating, celebrating, arguing and grieving. As parents, you’ve learned what works best for your family and each of your children. Those instincts and experience are your best guide.

For example, you’ll need to decide whether you gather everyone, and talk all together, or whether you talk to each child separately. One child may need hours of gentle talk, with increasingly clear discussion. Another may be more comfortable with the subject than you are. Some families have learned that having everyone in the same room for anything isn’t a good idea. This is not the time to challenge that experience.

In any approach, let your children know that it’s good to talk about dying. Any point is a good one and anything is fair game. Let them know that you won’t be upset by their talk. Avoiding the truth with optimistic but plainly false statements usually shuts down conversation, as it tells your children that the subject is something you don’t want to talk about. Honesty is the best approach. Of course, there are different ways of being honest, with various degrees of gentleness and bluntness. If your children understand what you’re saying and are coping with it, then you can be less soft and clearer in your language.

At times, the person who is dying doesn’t want to burden the family, and so won’t talk about death. Similarly, a family member may avoid discussion for fear of taking away hope or causing depression. Each may believe that if the other wanted to talk then he or she would bring up the subject. It’s usually a huge relief when someone breaks the silence and conversation flows.

You may need to talk about specific treatment options or the lack of options. If your husband has decided not to pursue a potential treatment, your children may feel that their father is rejecting the pursuit of every possible moment on this earth. This sometimes feels like a personal rejection. Consider emphasizing that accepting death is not rejecting life, and is not rejecting them.

Even adult children need to feel important and special to their father. He may want to tell each how proud he is of him or her, and how that pride helps him in this very sad time. This is a gift he can give to each child. If he’s well enough, he may consider writing a journal for each one. Every time he thinks of something to say to each one, he can write it down. This can range from a single sentence about something in the past, or words of advice for the future. Such a journal gives children a sense of legacy, and a special reminder of their dad.

Often decisions need to be made about issues such as the approach to medical treatments, or whether their father wants care at home, in a hospital or hospice. These are sad and difficult topics, but it’s important to let your children know what their father wants, and it eases the responsibility they may feel for these difficult choices. The decisions can be formalized in a health care directive. The health care team can be part of developing a directive, as they have information on the various health care options.

A directive can also allow your husband to communicate his thoughts about dignity. Dignity is a very personal concept and means something different to everyone. It helps if your husband can describe what might threaten his dignity and what might preserve it. This lets the family and the health care team understand the best way to meet his needs.

It can be difficult to find meaning or purpose in someone’s dying. Yet, this time offers a very important opportunity to your children. It helps them learn about death and dying. This may be the last lesson a parent can pass on to children. It will be important for them, and teach them how to help their own children in the future.