Dear David Coleman: How can I tell my children their cousin is dying?

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David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have three children, aged 12, nine and eight years. My husband’s nephew, who is 20, has leukaemia and we found out last night that there is no more that can be done for him. We are devastated. The children are very close to their cousin. They know he has been sick and we have all been so positive that he will get better. My question to you, if you can help me please, is what is the right way of telling my children that their cousin is going to die and how do I prepare them for what is to come?

David replies: What a sad situation for your whole family. I am sure your nephew’s family must also be devastated, as must your nephew himself. Such tragic news forces everyone to consider their own mortality, but it is at its most stark and real for your nephew. My thoughts are with him and your extended family.

I am not sure there is a “right” way to tell children about sad or shocking news. There is a “wrong” way, however. If they were simply informed of this shocking news, without any support from you or their dad, it would be really difficult for them. It may even by traumatising.

While they may be aware of his illness, their focus so far has been on the potential for recovery, rather than the potential for death. So, for them to hear that he is definitely going to die of leukaemia will come as a shock.

The key thing for you is to recognise that telling your children is not a once-off “event”. It is a process of telling them. That means that you tell them, explaining it clearly and unambiguously, but crucially, you remain available to them over time to answer questions, clarify things or just emotionally support them with their feelings about what they have heard.

I believe that it is good to tell children the truth where possible, even if the truth is hard to express, or hard to accept. The truth will usually lead to less complexity later.

By treating this as a process, you will be able to contextualise what you are saying, and you will make it clear to your children that you don’t expect them to cope with this news on their own. Rather, you want them to come to you if they have more questions, feel distressed, or want to talk further about it. Your door will, very clearly, be open.

Given the ages of the children, it will probably make sense to speak with them altogether. This will allow them to know that everyone has heard the same information, and so there are no secrets, or no need to “protect” anyone in the family from the awfulness of what is happening.

This gives your children more opportunity to offer each other support in the days and weeks to come, as they might feel that they are “all in this together”, so to speak.

Another factor to consider is that even though you will give the children all the same information at the same time, there is no guarantee that they will all understand or process it in the same way.

We have to remember that they are all individuals with their own personalities and their own way of dealing with things, so they may want to talk a lot, they may withdraw and not want to talk at all, or they may have any other kind of response to what you tell them.

It is this unpredictability, in terms of their response and the effect the news has on them, that usually worries us. If we knew how our children would react, we might feel more confident about what to say to them, how to say it and when to say it.

We have to remember, however, that most children are very resilient and may be better able to cope with sad news than we might give them credit for. Your continued support of them as they try to cope with the news, will further help them to build their resilience to cope with future adversity.

It will be difficult and probably distressing when you talk with them. But, your willingness to talk openly will, hopefully, give them the confidence to continue to speak with you as they try to come to terms with such sad news.