One of the most challenging parts of life is to watch a loved one go through a serious illness, such as cancer. As adults, we find different ways to cope. Children need to find their own way, too, especially as it pertains to their parents or another close relative. This can come in various formats, from talking to family members, to reaching out to friends, teachers and perhaps even support groups. Each person finds their own way to understand what it takes to become a caregiver and how to care for a person in their final stages of life.
The first step is to understand the problem. Even if you do not have all the facts of the illness, but are learning as you go along, keep a journal of everything that is happening. Cancer patients in particular may experience a wide array of symptoms. From the moment a loved one is diagnosed, keep a journal of doctor appointments, hospital stays, treatments, etc. This journal should be made readily available to any family member. Any family member should be able to add to it, as well.
When explaining the illness to a child, try to explain it in as simple a manner as possible. For example, there are many different types of cancer. Tumors can grow in any organ. There may be a chance to remove it or shrink it through surgery or radiation. Other types of cancer include cancer of the blood, including Leukemia. Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation or a bone marrow transplant. Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is one of the four types of leukemia. It requires either chemotherapy, the use of other drugs or a stem cell transplant. Lymphoma is another blood cancer. This disease develops in the lymph nodes. It is similar to leukemia in that it travels throughout the body. It too, requires chemotherapy. Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma is a more aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It also starts out in the lymph nodes and can travel to other places, such as the spleen or the liver. An oncologist can tell you what stage the patient is in and that tells you where it is located. Once it reaches Stage 4, the highest level, it may have traveled to the bone marrow. Survival rates start to go down at this point. Double-Hit Lymphoma is when the cancer starts out in the body (systemic) and then travels into the spinal column and the covering of the brain (the meninges) creating Central Nervous System Lymphoma (CNS). This requires a type of chemotherapy that gets dripped directly into the brain through a port, or directly into the spinal column. CNS is rare, and survival rates vary depending upon certain factors, such as age, other diseases and the immune system.
As your loved one is going through a serious illness, decide how much you want your child to be involved. If your loved one is in the hospital, decide if you want your child to visit. Children and visitors can enhance the hospital stay for someone with a serious illness. Just being there, talking about life outside the hospital, and putting a smile on their face, is sometimes all a person needs to lift their spirits. Hearing stories about school helps to take their mind off their own problems and helps them to focus on the outside world.
Ask your loved one if there is any particular food they might like to have while in the hospital. Sometimes, hospital food may not be to the liking of a person who is seriously ill. A special homemade dish, or family recipe, might help them to eat and get proper nutrition. Bring it with you, so long as the hospital allows it. If your child or grandchild can prepare it, even something as simple as cookies, it may be met with a heartfelt feeling of gratitude.
If your loved one is at home, try to make them as comfortable as possible. Children can help by doing simple chores, such as cleaning their rooms, setting the table, doing the dishes or perhaps even doing laundry. A little goes a long way in helping out when someone is ill.
When a person reaches their final stage of life, family members need to decide what is the best thing to do for themselves, as well as for their loved one. It might be best to keep the person in the hospital. Sometime hospice is the best option, or, hospice at home. Discuss with your family what everyone feels is in the patient’s best interests, and be guided by your doctor’s advice. Take into account the age of your children and how they might be affected by different choices.
Finally, once a loved one has passed, reassure your child that it takes time to heal. It is not an overnight event. Talk to your children. Perhaps they could benefit from seeing a therapist. Over time, they will hopefully acclimate themselves to a new way of life. Going through the loved one’s clothing, memorabilia, photos etc., can help jog memories and bring about a sense of closure. Being there for each other in a caring, supportive environment is the best we can do to move forward with our lives.
The following is a list of books that parents or teachers can read to their children to help them understand serious illnesses and how to cope. It also includes resources for adults:
Books that help explain terminal illness to children
Toolkit to Help Educators Support Children of Parents with Serious Illness
How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness