Communicating with Children
How do I tell my young son that his grandmother is dying of cancer?

It’s very important to talk with children honestly about illness and death. Children can sense when something’s wrong and may worry more if no one talks to them openly about it.

Explain to your son in simple terms what’s happening with his grandmother. Tell him that she won’t be getting better. Don’t be afraid to use the words "cancer," "death" and "dying." You can say that death means someone is no longer breathing, is not alive, can’t experience things in this world and is dead. Using the words “dead” and “died” is important. Other terms, such as "loss" or "in heaven" or "passed away" may confuse children. It’s not wise to say that eventually someone will go to sleep and not wake up. It can make children worry that this could happen to them, and they may become afraid to fall sleep.

Structure is important for young children, and helps them cope with stress. Try to maintain your son’s routine as closely as you can.

Often families don’t want children to be around someone who is dying. This leaves children with many unanswered questions and may lead to fears. It’s a good idea to take your son to visit his grandmother often if it’s possible. Continue to visit as the illness advances, as long as symptoms aren’t too distressing and your son can cope with what he sees. His grandmother may have her own thoughts about continuing your son’s visits. It may help her to talk about this while she still can make decisions. It also gives you assurance that you know what she wants.

Your son’s grandmother may have symptoms that you need to explain to your son. If she has pain, your son needs to know, so that he can act appropriately. For example, if she has pain in her back, it’s important that your son ask before climbing into her lap. If she can’t do certain things, such as walk long distances or get out of bed, it helps to explain this also.

Ask your son often how he’s feeling and if he has any questions about what’s happening. He needs to know he can talk about his feelings. Be aware that young children can have ideas that seem strange to adults. It helps to ask about these ideas and where they come from. Your son may be confused, as his thinking may be very concrete, and death is an abstract concept. This also may make it hard for your son to grasp the finality of death. Your son may need to hear the explanations repeatedly, for quite some time. When dealing with stress or new experiences some children may regress. For example, a child who has recently been toilet trained may need diapers again. Don’t be alarmed if such things happen; it may take time for these issues to be resolved.