I talked to my daughter about my last blog post. Did she think parents should tell their children when they are diagnosed with cancer, or should they lie and spare their kids a terrible and painful truth?
Her reaction was viseral and immediate. She said she thought it was wrong to lie to children about a parent’s cancer diagnosis. She said she would have been very angry if she’d found out later that she’d not been told the truth, even though she was only 10 years old at the time. My daughter said she knew from the vibes in the house and how her father was acting that something was very wrong with me. She said if we’d have chosen not to tell her the truth and if she’d found out later, she would have been angry at the dishonesty, would have resented not being told the truth and would have had difficulty trusting us thereafter. She felt the ONLY right thing to do is to tell a child the truth about a parent’s cancer diagnosis.
The CR magazine article Losing a Parent quotes Paula K. Rauch, a child psychiatrist and co-author of the book Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick “If a child is kept in the dark about the severity of a parent’s illness, they can feel like they were betrayed or lied to and may even feel unloved,” she says. “That can leave them with problems trusting the surviving parent or the other adults in their lives.” From what my daughter said me, this would have been true for her.
I wonder too now if knowing the truth at least gave her some sense of control. She could do something about it; she could make me cards and write me letters, pray for me, talk to her friends about what was happening, seek support. She knew what the problem was so she was able process it. Maybe for kids it’s the same as it is for us adults- sometimes the limbo of the unknown is worse than the hard truth.
I have lost appendiceal cancer friends who have been in hospice and who have had young children, so I asked my daughter if the honesty should extend to telling a child that a parent was going to die. She hesitated at that. She said she didn’t think she could deal with knowing a parent was going to die and living with that daily reality as a child, but that she would want to be prepared. She would want to know that it was possible her parent might die, so that when it happened it wouldn’t be a complete shock, that some part of her might have been ready. She could have at least gotten used to the idea, the possibilty.