Lesson #3: Do not tell your children that everything will be okay

When I first found out that I had breast cancer, first I freaked out quite a bit. I don’t want my kids to have to have a sick mom. Or even a dead mom. But then we had to decide what to tell our children. Luckily, it was summer and they were scheduled to spend a couple of weeks with relatives, giving us some time to plan.

When they came back we sat them down on the couch and told them that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that we were facing a difficult and uncertain year of treatments ahead.  We showed them these videos and told them that they were allowed to ask any questions that they wanted, even though we might not be able to answer all questions that they had.

Even back then, knowing only the partial story – I had not yet completed my “staging” – we resisted the urge to tell them that everything was going to be okay.

Pro Tip: Do not tell your children that everything will be okay. 

This was difficult because as parents we’re trained to keep telling our kids that everything will be okay, but really there is no way to guarantee to kids that this is the case. Even when we thought that my cancer was probably curable and survivable, we knew that the odds were not perfect.

Pro Tip: Do not tell your children that everything will be okay when it is obvious that it is not. 

Also, as soon as kids are old enough to grasp that you have a serious life-threatening illness, they are old enough to define “okay” for themselves. In truth, my kids will be okay, and they are supported better than many. They have, at the moment, two parents, four grandparents, eight terrific aunts and uncles, seven first cousins that they love, two second cousins that they see regularly, and countless friends and relatives who love them. Most of these people will be there for them for a very long time. They live in a peaceful, orderly place, where they always have enough to eat, a roof over their head, and access to excellent education and health care. In many ways, they are ahead of where I was at their age, so you can see that they will be okay in the big picture. At the same time, it would be unfair to tell them that it will be okay.

We consulted a few of the experts on family communication within our personal circles, and guess what – there’s no good way to spin this! It turns out that we essentially did the right thing. Experts like my sister, a clinical social worker who has seen many families through crisis or our local friend who has a history of working with troubled children, will say helpful things like “know your kids”, “always tell them the truth”, “have a good relationship with your children”, “maintain open lines of communication”, “know that when kids are acting out that’s probably a sign”, etc. A few good pieces of advice that we received:

  • Kids need to hear something many times for it to sink in. Like most pieces of advice, this is not just true for kids.
  • Keep routines the same, as much as possible. This is a good guideline to live by, especially after the principal at the kids school told them that it would be fine for them to be absent if they need to. (Don’t tell the kids she said this.)
  • Remind kids that they are loved. Check.
  • A dear friend and amazing librarian scoured up some of the best titles she could find. There are good books for dealing with early stage breast cancer, and good books for dealing with bereavement, but I don’t think there are good books for dealing with chronic illness or late-stage cancer. Still looking, though inquiries to the MBC community have yielded nothing.
  • Don’t push the talk therapy if they don’t seem to need it – this is intrusive. We did send La Neige to some sessions with a therapist, and that was helpful but not a magic answer.

A dear friend of mine is currently a nurse intern at a Very Big Name Research Institution in the US, and she just completed a short course on end-of-life care that is both practical and reflective of all the latest research. What did State-of-the-Art End-of-Life Care Course say about death and children (besides that, I’m not kidding, you only get one shot at death so you had better do it right)? According to the latest research, the more children are involved with a parent who is actively dying, the better for that kid. They will thank you later. Well, no, they won’t, really.

This little revelation happened to coincide with a bad time for me, when I had to drop everything to lie down and cry because I had no energy for my normal life and because my head just hurt too much. My daughter got to see me cry, so obviously we are all about doing the right thing here.

Meanwhile, The Prophet, who gained his nom du blog partly from the etymology of his name and partly from his innate spirituality, said when told about my cancer, “You tell me that I shouldn’t be sad, but I don’t feel like being happy.” When I was first diagnosed we had our wonderful Rabbi D over to just remind us that she is there for them. She blessed two mezzuzot that we had put off hanging on the front and back doors, so now every morning The Prophet pats his hand on the mezzuzah and then kisses his hand on the way out. At first I thought that this was just a fluke that I witnessed, but then I saw that he does it every day, even when he’s in a hurry. I asked him why later, and he said, “I don’t know why I do it, but the day just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.”