How One Social Worker Diagnosed with Cancer Broke the News to Her Kids

In this excerpt from her new book, Talking About Death Won’t Kill You, researcher, professor and cancer survivor Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller explores the difficult subject of death with her young children.

Dying, worried young girl holds her teddy bear as her mom talks to a doctorphoto credit: shutterstock

One of the first things friends asked upon learning that I was diagnosed with cancer was “What have you told your kids?”

Talking with children about illness, death and dying was something I used to consider myself good at. It was part of my job as a social worker on a hospice unit. I used to wonder why people found it hard to talk with children. I often found it easier to talk with children about the tough stuff of life than the adults.

Then I had my own children. And when I was diagnosed with cancer, it suddenly wasn’t so easy or straight-forward. It’s hard to talk with your children when the soundtrack playing in your head is “How could you do this to them?” and your heart feels like it just might actually break.

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I call this tale “Mommy has a tumour; now, let’s go buy a trampoline!” Here’s what happened.

On first broaching the subject of dying with my children

We called a family meeting on a Saturday afternoon, about 36 hours after I got my diagnosis. Before we could tell our son and daughter, my husband and I needed some time to sit with the information and try to make sense of things. We needed to find something tangible for us all to hold on to. In my family’s case, this was a plan of action. So, when my husband and I were ready, the four of us sat on the couch, cuddling under a blanket. We talked about how I’d been sick lately and was very tired. Then we told our children that the test that I’d had a few days earlier showed I had a tumour growing in my colon. I would need to have an operation to cut it out. This operation had to be done in Toronto because there was a very special doctor there who could help me. Then we told them the plan was to go to Toronto as a family. We’d have some fun, and then Granny would take them home on the plane before my surgery. Their response was to run upstairs and pack. They are definitely not ones to miss out on an adventure!

On their responses

My son, who was five at the time, initially responded by becoming a bit more cuddly and affectionate. He didn’t really say much, he just wanted lots of hugs.

My daughter, then aged six and an “old soul,” was a different story. Almost every night when we were doing our “goodnight ritual,” she would come up with a new question. I knew to expect the big one: “Mommy are you going to die?” Nonetheless, it was still hard when it came. I refused to lie to my children, but I also didn’t want them to know that their parents were scared shitless (pun intended). So I told her, “We have a plan that we feel good about. Should it ever change and I don’t feel good about the plan, I’ll let you know that, too.” The plan was the “tangible piece” my husband and I needed to be able to give to our children. We knew that their little worlds were going to be rocked. But we also needed them to know we had a plan for all of us to regain our footing, at some point.

After the “Are you going to die?” question, next was “Can you catch cancer, like a cold?” That was much easier. We never discussed genetics or our familial history of the disease (my paternal aunt died of colon cancer when I was pregnant with my daughter), and how that might increase the possibility of one of them eventually getting colon cancer, too. Both my husband and I felt they were just too young for all that technical mumbo jumbo. And to be honest, I worry about that enough for all of us.

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On a heartbreaking moment

I remember taking my children to see a horse show. Both my daughter and I love horses. About 45 minutes into the show, the three of us were having a good time, munching on some treats, when my son piped up, “You know, Mama, if you were to die, I’d be pretty sad. I probably wouldn’t get out of bed all day.” To which my daughter joined in, “If you died, I’d be really quiet at school. I wouldn’t feel much like talking or organizing my friends.” I couldn’t say anything other than “Thank you.” I hugged both of them and thought, “If I die, I’m going to feel cheated out of time with the two of you.”

This brings me back to the trampoline. It sat right outside the kitchen window so that I could watch my children jump. It allowed me to have some space, time to talk on the phone, email, think and cry.

I’ve learned a lot from my children. Young people don’t generally spend a lot of time in intense emotion. They take a more “ebb-and-flow” approach. We adults could take a hint from that philosophy. I still, and probably always will, appreciate a good wallow. Sometimes I like to sit in my wallow for a really long time. My children have taught me that there is space for sadness. But right around the corner, there will be something good, and you’ve got to be ready to enjoy it. Life is messy and dynamic, and sometimes you just need to go out and get a trampoline.

On having courage

Like most things in parenting, talking with children about dying and death is not easy, and for us it was easier to do before we were parents ourselves. But the hard work will pay off. Take a moment and think back to how you learned about death. Now think about how you would like this experience to be for your child. Think about how you might approach making this a better experience for your children, and how your family makes space for death in the middle of life and living. Hopefully you will not need a trampoline to do it.

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Excerpted from Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations by Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller. © 2018 by Kathy Kortes-Miller. Published by ECW Press Ltd.