Break the news of illness to children without breaking them.
By Megha Pai
Sonali Bendre, who is fighting cancer in New York, recently revealed on social media how she broke the news of her illness to her 12-year-old son and why it is important to keep the children involved in a situation as painful and serious as this. As much as she wanted to protect her son, she knew had to be completely honest with him. She shared how her son has taken the news with such maturity and has become “a source of strength and positivity” for her. “In some situations now, he even reverses roles and takes on being the parent, reminding me of things I need to do!” wrote the actress.
Compare the above scenario to that of Anand’s (name changed) Dubai-based family. Anand’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 13, a truth that his parents hid from him for years. “Right from the beginning, I could sense something was not right,” shares Anand, now 19, “The writing was always on the wall. My mother, who used to run the house like a tight ship, suddenly didn’t feel like cooking or was too busy to attend the PTAs. There were unexplained long trips she made alone to India, drastic changes in her appearance and sudden spells of emotional outbursts that I could not understand.”
Anand began to withdraw socially. “I had always been a naughty kid and constant source of worry for my mom. I started to think it was my fault that she was behaving weirdly. I stopped paying attention in class. My grades began to suffer,” remembers Anand. Then, at 15, came the life-changing reveal. “One day, I was home alone and snooping around in my mother’s room. I stumbled upon some medical files and my world came crashing down. When my parents came home, I lashed out at them. How could they not tell me? They tried to console me but the damage was done. I suddenly felt that I couldn’t trust anyone anymore. I was so traumatised and my core shaken so badly that I developed anxiety and panic attacks,” exclaims Anand. Four years later, he says he has forgiven his parents and accepted the situation, but he still suffers from occasional panic attacks and has trust issues.
While Anand’s case may be extreme, it is certainly not unexpected. It is not possible to keep something as big as cancer a secret for too long. Sooner or later the children will find out. It is better for parents to control how they find out so that they can help the children cope and adjust to the situation.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when breaking the news of cancer or any other major illness to your children:
ACCEPT IT YOURSELF
Before you speak to your child, make sure you have taken necessary time to accept your spouse’s or your own condition to a certain extent. Parents must be in a reasonably stable emotional state when breaking the news so that they can be available to walk the children through the situation.
TELL THE TRUTH
When it comes to cancer, honesty is the best policy. Children are extremely observant and can sense things are not right. It’s not a good idea to keep them in this unsure and confused state where they are left to guess and imagine unfortunate scenarios. Many a times, children tend to blame themselves for these changes. It is imperative that they know it is not their fault and that they are loved no matter what. It would be even more disastrous if they were to find out through a source other than you, as then they feel betrayed and hurt. It’s always better to provide a base (truth) to hold onto in the time of crisis. Only then can the process of coming to terms with it begin.
PREPARE FOR CHANGE
Kids need routine in order to thrive in life. Routine makes them feel safe. Anything that disrupts routine can become a huge source of stress and sorrow. One of the biggest reasons to share the news of the illness with children is to prepare them for the changes that will happen in the family – such as the inability of a care giver to perform his or her regular duties, absence of a parent or change in the responsibilities of the child towards the household. Talking it out and explaining these changes will help them to feel less confused, accept the situation and adapt better.
ANSWER THEIR QUESTIONS
Children are curious by nature and have lots of questions. If they sense that something is amiss but don’t know what it is, they may feel lost and confused. When they are informed in a proper way, they know what to ask. Encourage them to express themselves and ask questions and answer them as honestly and calmly as possible.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Having said everything, don’t have big expectations from children. Remember they are unique and will react and cope differently. While they may not react the way you might have imagined, just accept them and give them time to digest the truth. Be present with them and available to answer all their questions.
BE HEARD: The best way to normalise the situation is to provide a safe outlet for your child to say it out to people, not once, but as many times it takes to make one feel heard and accepted. The most important coping support is a listening ear – it could be that of a friend, a relative, a group of peers undergoing a similar situation or a mental health specialist.
EXPRESS WITHOUT INHIBITIONS: It is important to provide an atmosphere where the children can process and express their feelings without fear or inhibitions. Often, taboos are associated with certain diseases. To cope, one needs an atmosphere where one can express whatever surfaces in the process of healing.
CREATIVE OUTLETS: Creative expression plays a huge role in coping and healing. Talking or writing about their emotions can serve as a great outlet. Art and music therapies help express and overcome hidden fears and buried emotions.
ONE DAY AT A TIME: In severe cases, taking a day at a time helps to get back to a normal state of mind which in turn helps in further healing. Taking a day at a time and focusing on the immediate future helps cope with the fear of death, which can be very overwhelming.
“I have worked with hundreds of patients with varying degrees of spiritual inclination over the years. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that spirituality is the greatest source of mental strength and support one can have in the times of crisis,” says Neha Singh.
Singh shares the story of one of her cancer surviving patients, “Going inward and connecting with a higher power gave her the mental strength to come out of trauma and find meaning in life,” she shares, adding, “Deep spiritual practices such as yoga, pranayamas and meditation not only helped her emotionally and psychologically but they also raised her immunity and physical energy levels. And since her children were familiar with her spiritual way of life, not only did they easily relate to her ways of coping but they also joined her and became a part of her coping journey!”
(With inputs from Neha Singh, Clinical psychologist & psychotherapist, palliative care, Art of Living’s Sri Sri College of Ayurvedic Science and Research.)
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