Explaining My Terminal Illness to My Young Children
How do you tell your little ones that you’ve been given a year to live?
They knew from the moment my doctor called that something was wrong. My two sons, then aged one and four, had been sent to bed a little early so they wouldn’t bear witness to my terror. A routine MRI scan had revealed the worst: a 7-centimeter tumor in the frontal lobe of my brain. A week later, after my craniotomy, I got my formal diagnosis: glioblastoma multiforme, nicknamed “The Terminator.” My doctor told me it has a 100% recurrence rate over time. I was given a year to live.
There are so many difficult conversations to have when you find out you have a terminal illness, but none were so hard as telling my young children.
At first, my husband and I didn’t have the words to explain to them what was happening, because we didn’t know. It was like attempting to describe a hurricane from the eye of the storm. A parenting book given to us by a friend encouraged age-appropriate honesty with children of terminally ill patients. It argued that lying breaks the trust between a parent and child, and that if I died after telling them I wouldn’t, my children wouldn’t be able to find resolution or take advantage of the resilience that comes naturally to them. It made sense to us and suited our parenting style.
I instantly understood that the story of my cancer was the most important one I could tell my boys. I also knew then, as I do now, that shaping my story was not just for their benefit, but also for my own. Narrating a responsible version of hope to them helped me to face my impending death with kindness. No topic was out of bounds, but we never forced Henry, our oldest son, to talk about things he wasn’t ready to hear. The result of this philosophy meant that little conversations bubbled up in random bursts, often at the breakfast table in between bites of cereal, or in the early morning hours as I wrote through a sleepless night.
We spoke almost constantly about love: how mine, as their mother, would never fade even if I died.
One early morning, Henry shuffled over to where I was sitting, writing in my journal as I did during those…