Well, this still sucks
May 27, 2013 3:21 PM   Subscribe

So my best friend has ovarian cancer. And we're in our "out of the frying pan, into the fire" moment because she's stage 4 and shit's already going poorly. How do I tell my kid?

Kid BlahLaLa is 10, and he's bright and talkative and, as an only child, is particularly accustomed to talking to adults. I knew I'd have to tell him about Sick Friend at some point, but I wasn't quite ready. Now I have to be ready whether I like it or not.

What he knows so far is a version of the truth: "Sick Friend has had abdominal issues and needed surgery and is in the hospital." What he doesn't know: her surgery discovered a shit-ton of cancer; she's had a lot of parts removed; it's been 8 days post-op and she's nowhere near going home; the cancer's in hard-core attack mode so they're not giving her time to recover, they're starting chemo right away; and this is a particularly shitty diagnosis and the prospects are dim and getting dimmer. He already knows that Sick Friend has needed me a lot this past week; luckily I've been able to juggle things so Kid BlahLaLa hasn't noticed too much. (I go to the hospital all day while he's in school; that great playdate I scheduled meant that he was having fun and didn't really care that I was spending that time at the hospital, etc.)

Complicating factors: we have two other family members who also have cancer right now. One is young and seems to be successfully fending off breast cancer. This person isn't in our town so Kid BlahLaLa knows about it but hasn't really had personal experience with it, and this relative is someone he's not that close too so he really just shrugged it off. Another is quite elderly and will probably pass on shortly, but as she's in her mid-90s this won't be perceived as tragic.

Sick Friend is different. She's close to him, she's known him his whole life. She's got a kid just a little older than him, also an only child. I'm afraid this is going to hit him in a bigger way, and be much, much scarier and terrorizing than the others. Also, I'm really a part of this situation 100%.

So what do I tell my kid? Are there books to help me deal with this? Websites/blogs? Help.
posted by BlahLaLa to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Please be truthful as soon as possible. I lost a bunch of relatives and a close family friend around that age and not being prepared in a few cases was terrible. Also, let his grief be a thing that is separate from your own grief--yes, I know, it's your friend, but your kid's relationship with her is special and different. Sometimes when adults are grieving, there's a tendency to ignore kids' emotional responses as lesser or less valid. Not saying you would, but I've just been there enough times that it bears saying.

If you need a script, something like, "Hey, kiddo, let's sit down and talk. I have bad news. You know I've been spending a lot of time with Bestie lately. The truth is, she has cancer. The doctors are working on it, but prognosis is poor. There's a pretty good chance she's going to pass away. It really really sucks, and I'm sad about it. I thought this might be a good time to talk about it so I can answer any questions you have."

If your friend feels comfortable with it and is feeling up to it, I'd recommend you let your kid spend time with her, too, either one on one or together as families so your kid has a chance to say goodbye or just be with her. Let your kid guide you in this. They can be really perceptive about their own needs when it comes to grieving.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:35 PM on May 27, 2013 [18 favorites]

I was your kid, at age 14, watching my mom die of cancer and not being told everything and wondering and thinking things were going to be okay and then they weren't and then she died.

The one thing I would have appreciated more than anything else was The Truth. I was a voracious reader with an Encyclopedia Britannica and a library card. I knew a lot more than most kids my age (and maybe even some adults) but cancer could mean so many different things, so many possible outcomes. Simply being told that my mom was terminal and that there was no recovery possible would have helped me a lot more than being kept in the dark.

Look, there's no way to really sugar-coat this kind of news. But letting him know what's really going on will help him understand, even if he doesn't get it in a way an adult would. Be prepared for questions and answer them (or look up the answers together). I wish you the best in this most difficult time.
posted by tommasz at 3:35 PM on May 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

Really sorry to hear about your friend (and family members). I think your son's old enough to know what cancer is and how it works if you explain it to him, and he's old enough to understand death and suffering. So I encourage you to explain those things to him in an adult manner--especially if you're not positive about the outcome--and just be ready to answer his 10-year-old's questions.

Have a good answer ready for the inevitable why. If you don't have a systematic approach to life that allows you to explain the "why" in a manner that's not earth-shatteringly horrible for a ten-year-old, then answering "why" will be tougher. But there are probably books out there or websites with good responses for dealing with impending death in any given set of belief systems.
posted by resurrexit at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2013

Response by poster: Resurrexit, you bring up an important element of this. I definitely DON'T have a good answer as to "why," so I could really use some suggestions. (We are culturally Jewish but non-practicing, if that matters.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:43 PM on May 27, 2013

As for the "why," we (not religious) used the "Everything that lives must die; it's part of the life cycle," for general old-age related deaths. It definitely does bring up very real fears of parents or siblings or younger relatives/friends dying, so you may have to deal with that.

For a more specific "why this friend" sort of why, I have told my kids that life just does not make sense sometimes and it's totally not fair. I also tell them that there are so many beautiful and amazing parts about life that make the sucky times easier to bear. Also, I'd rather love people and risk losing them than never having that relationship, that love, that friendship.

Good luck to you, and I'm so sorry you're all going through this.
posted by cooker girl at 3:55 PM on May 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Dana Farber and Cancer Care have some nice starting points about what to say to start the conversation. Both emphasize, and I think this is important, that it's probably going to be something that your child will process a little at a time, so you'll likely have multiple conversations.

As to the why, man, that's a hard one. Last year I lost a wonderful friend to cancer and had to explain it to my 4-year-old. A year later he's still asking questions. The best I could come up with so far was to keep it fairly factual and biological; that she was sick with a serious illness. She and her family and her doctors and her friends all did everything they could do to make her better but eventually she died. I was raised Christian and believe in an afterlife, but we haven't really broached it with our son yet and I think it would have been confusing at his age to try to work out why she would be alive somewhere else and leave our family. It was a hard conversation and it's one we're still having months later. He reminds me her heart stopped. We talk about how sad it is to not see her and talk to her, that she was very, very funny and I still remember her laughing and always will. He's asked why, and I've talked about it not being fair, and that there is no good reason why. When he's older, I'm sure we'll talk about what different people believe about souls, afterlife, reincarnation, etc.

Starting with the facts and being honest about your own feelings and what you don't know are all good places to start. Let him lead the conversation and ask questions, and when he wants to stop talking, that's all good too.

I'm so sorry for your friend, for her family and for all of you who love her. Sending lots of strength to you all.
posted by goggie at 3:57 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was a child, we lost a family friend with a similar relationship. She was a great friend of my parents and part of my life all the same. I would have been about the same age at the time and similar description to your child – strikingly similar, including other family members, etc.

Whilst I've often thought of her, I've rarely thought of the illness. She lived near the beach, and that I remember quite clearly. I remember her holding my hand, and her fascinating brown wooden house. I remember spending a lot of time with her, for a short-duration of time.

And then she was gone. And it was all explained to me. Honesty was the policy. And whilst I heard the words and understood the concepts, they didn't really mean anything to me. I didn't have a basis for understanding them, and I certainly didn't understand what was coming. And then, it's not that I didn't notice, but I don't remember it hurting. It was similar to a lot of parents' friends who came and went as their own relationships changed and life moved on. It felt more like she had moved away, than passed away if I'm honest.

I don't think I visited the hospital – which would have left a tremendous imprint because that's what hospitals did. They were like alien adult worlds where all of the colour was contrived and the smell was artificial. I have such clear memories of them, but no memories of seeing her there, so I must not have been there for that part.

And I remember my mother being very upset. Not visibly upset so often, more generally perturbed. She was a punctual, organised, professional person at that time, and I could tell that something was profoundly affecting her. She explained slowly what it was, and what it meant. I had heard the words on television obviously and at family gatherings. I read about the science of it. When your body's cells became confused and had mixed signals. I knew it was certainly bad, but there's not a lot of emotional content there. As mentioned, it was like she moved away.

I haven't thought about those memories in probably twenty years. So I don't know what your son will think about it now, but if he's anything like me, in twenty years, he'll probably remember her, and your sadness, but not much specifically about the cancer.

There were a few deaths of family and family friends in that period. People were always very open and honest about it. The majority of what I remember is that they always seemed very sad. I was sad because they were sad. I didn't really need to know why, I couldn't have understood at that age. I understood aerodynamics and liked big band music, but death was so abstract. There were a lot of words, and just a general emotion present. It would linger for weeks. But it was so specific to family situations. It wasn't present at school, or with friends.

I guess at that age, everything was new all the time. Growing up was so exciting and so stimulating, that death was just another new something. Like that flutter that would kick in when around certain girls. Or loving basketball and never being able to shoot enough baskets. Riding bikes in the dirt. Or swimming in the ocean. Everything was stimulating and there was no such thing as permanence. Nothing seemed permanent because everything was new.

Maybe that was just me, but not sure how one comprehends death without permanence.

Not sure if this has helped at all. Sorry for this trial in your life, and glad you and your son have each other at a time like this. Good luck.
posted by nickrussell at 3:58 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're a-religious, "What do you think?" and "Let's look up what different religious traditions believe," are okay starts. And yeah, acknowledging that the world is fucking random and it sucks (cooker girl's thoughts on that are absolutely amazing) is totally fine too.

I wouldn't be too quick to assume your child is only going to be curious about what's happening in a broader philosophical sense. When I was a kid and losing people, "Why?" just as often meant "What's cancer and how does it work?" So be prepared to really listen to your kid rather than assuming the conversation is of a certain sort too quickly.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:03 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

A sidenote: You mentioned that your friend has a child.

My dad died when I was a young teen and it would have really helped if the parents of my friends had openly explained what had happened to my dad and what might be happening to me.

In other words, as well as explaining the current situation to your son, you could explain the grieving process and suggest that he could have a very important role as a listener/friend to your friend's child, especially because your son loves her too.
posted by Kerasia at 4:08 PM on May 27, 2013 [18 favorites]

The advice above is quite good - I just want to emphasize that he will be greatly served if you can include him in rituals, and planning them, both before and after.

Children want to be useful, to be a part of things, to make a difference. Asking "what do you think we can do to help Friend and Friend's Child to feel better" and "how would you like to remember Friend" and such will help a lot. So will "this is why we do [X] when people die." Particularly if your friend will be having a specific type of funeral service, or if you know you'll be leaving stones on her grave marker, or whatever - prepare him now. Helping to raise money for research or something would also be emotionally soothing, in all likelihood.

The hardest part of my grandma's death remains how outside of everything I was, how uninformed I was kept, etc. At 9 or 10 years old, this is an extremely important thing (I was 9 when she passed.)

Please also make sure to not be alarmed at whatever his reaction is to anything (he may giggle at nothing or at horrible things, he may withdraw for no apparent reason, he may become aggressive toward other children, etc.) My dad's still troubled over things I said and did when his mother died, and that happened 24 years ago - the appropriate response when a child behaves oddly under this kind of stress is to relax, redirect if possible, and bring up your worries with a professional.

Under no circumstances unilaterally ban him from a funeral, or send him off to live with relatives for a few weeks, or whatever; he's old enough to see that as a rejection of himself as a person, and simultaneously not nearly old enough to realize that he's hurting or confusing you, let alone stop on a dime. Also try not to complain/worry about him out loud with your friends, even if he's not around - that stuff will come back to him later (people rehearse things to me which my parents and grandmother said to them years ago, about me, to this day.)

My father sent me off on a long series of "distraction" activities while his mother was dying; it took me years to realize this was a way of him protecting himself in a time of grief and not just a clear sign that I was fundamentally screwed up and kind of evil. If Grandma had been healthier she'd have chewed him out for this and demanded I be allowed to visit, etc.; he was a youngish single dad and totally responsible for her care and mine and he freaked out.
posted by SMPA at 5:17 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was young like that, my biggest fear about death and dying was whether it was communicable or not. Can I catch cancer? If I can't catch it, how does it happen? What can I do to not get cancer? So be ready for those questions.

I also agree that distractions and purposefully not telling the truth aren't a good idea. But laying it all out in one shot may not be a good idea either, as it might be too much for him to process. He may need to digest what you tell him, and then ask more questions later.

As for the existential bits, I was ironically always comforted by the "everything that's alive has to die at some point" way of looking at things. Because it is an inviolable truth, and because the sooner I internalized that fact, the sooner I was able to accept death. And also, admitting that it's not fair and [nearly...] everyone dies sooner than we'd like. The pain of death is the price we pay for the joy of life.
posted by gjc at 5:35 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not entirely clear from your post whether Friend's child is a friend of Kid BlahLaLa. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to suss out what your friend is choosing to share with her child right now regarding her condition. If she's decided not to share details like her poor prognosis or the extent of her metastasis yet, it would be super unfortunate if Kid BlahLaLa inadvertently mentioned something upsetting to her child that the child didn't already know. I think 10 is old enough that you can just explain that [detail x of Friend's condition or prognosis] isn't something that Friend's child knows about yet, so if Kid BlahLaLa has any questions, he should ask you and not Friend's kid.

(Also, I'd imagine that Kid BlahLaLa is probably aware that there is Something Badly Wrong, so being totally honest with him might quell some of his fears about what that Something might be.)
posted by easy, lucky, free at 5:49 PM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

The above point is really important. I'm sure you want to protect the friend's child too.

Which leads to my point. I am quite sure that no matter what your son asks you, what he's really going to be worried about, late at night, even if he doesn't dare voice it, is: What would happen to me if my own mom died too? How could I cope with that?

Children are self-centered because they don't have enough power over what happens to them not to be. ANything you say about your friend should have a subtext at least about how everyone is going to make sure her son is OK and loved and cared for during her illness and, if sadly it comes to that, afterwards.
posted by third rail at 6:34 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be honest and be available to answer questions. I'm praying for you and your friend, I am so sorry this is happening.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 PM on May 27, 2013

I think some children can handle such things fairly well, so what you should do and say very much depends on what your son is like. I think one thing that's probably important regardless of what you do and say is how he sees you handling it. If you are appropriately emotional but strong and steady about it, rather than crumbling in front of him, I think it will help him feel more secure about the situation. And tell him how much you love him and how important he is to you.
posted by Dansaman at 9:15 PM on May 27, 2013

You have to tell him and he has to deal in his own way. Kids don't always learn about the world on the schedule we'd prefer. I lost my wife and my daughter's mother to cancer earlier this year. She (my daughter) was 17 months old.

I sort of think the only way you can really do this wrong is to not say anything. I was at a neighbor's house recently, and his young son (who's about 7) asked me, "When will [wife's name] come home?"
My neighbor looked embarrassed and said he would tell his kids soon. I didn't say anything.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:08 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a Gilda's Club or similar organization (it looks like they've been merged into something called Cancer Support Society) in your area? They're chockablock full of support materials / supportive people for patients, family, friends, you name it.

If the hospital your friend is being treated at has some sort of associated hospice program, you might also want to check it out -- although my mother died before we had a chance to enroll her in hospice, they still called up a few days afterwards to see if anyone needed to talk. Pretty rad, that.
posted by lumensimus at 10:25 PM on May 27, 2013

This is what I learned about telling kids stuff like this:
--You can do it in parts and let your kid's questions lead. Start with "Bestie has cancer." If he asks how bad, tell him Stage 4 and explain staging. If he asks her prognosis and you know it, tell him. But it's very likely he won't ask all those questions immediately. It is fine to let the discussion unfold over weeks.
--There's a book about telling kids. I think it's called "A tiny boat in the middle of the ocean."

Also, for what it's worth, one of my closest friends (also a young single mom) was diagnosed Stage Four a few months ago. In our case, at least, it was unbelievably chaotic and painful at the very beginning, but right now it has left emergency mode and life is settling into a new normal, including a changed prognosis from what they told her this winter. I don't know if that perspective is at all helpful to you but I just wanted to say it won't necessarily always feel the way it does now. Please feel free to Memail me if you want any advice about setting up support systems. I am sorry this is happening to your loved one.
posted by feets at 11:44 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tell the truth with as little prognosis (guessing what the future may hold) as possible. Best friend may die, linger while needing multiple procedures, or go into remission for years. In any event, Ten is on the right page. There is no way you can shield him from the facts of life, and death is a fact of life.
posted by Cranberry at 12:16 AM on May 28, 2013

This is terribly difficult, and I'm so sorry. I think Cranberry is right about presenting the possible outcomes honestly. Please do this soon so that when something absolutely must be said, Kid BlahLaLa does not have the sense that you withheld an important truth; this matters a great deal, because he'll almost certainly wonder if this could happen to you, and being up front with him about your friend will help him trust you and any reassurances you can offer (if you've seen a GP recently, you can say you've had a checkup and there's no reason to be worried; if you haven't had a checkup, it's worth getting one even in the midst of all this). He definitely knows something serious is going on, and if he's blindsided by the outcome, he may be less comforted by a parent he believes already "hid" one terrible truth.

When you tell him the situation, also tell him you know it can be hard to know how to feel and that you're available to him but don't expect an immediate response--he sounds old enough and smart enough to appreciate this--and maybe suggest that while doctors will do all they can regarding medical issues, this tragedy is also an opportunity for you to encourage one another and your friend (i.e., bring him into your "team" of helpers). I don't think it's too much pressure to let him know you value his thoughts and compassion.

As for the question of why, isn't it okay to say that even adults wonder about these things? My 9-yr-old certainly doesn't mind finding out he's asking a question that grown-ups ask. :) I've gone on too long already, but I feel for you as I lost a dear friend to cancer at 35 (his kids are my son's age) and also had to tell my son when my father was diagnosed. So if you'll bear with me, I'll tell you one totally silly thing that taught me more than either of those situations:

My husband brought home a small teddy bear holding a heart that said, "You is fine b*tch"--probably a dumb gag from a coworker passed on to me. I shoved it in a drawer and when my son found it (age 6 or 7) he was upset. I waxed on [and on] about That Word and how ugly it is but how much his dad loved me and had only given it to me because he knew I'd know he didn't mean it. Eventually my son said what bothered him. It should have read, "You are fine...." I agreed, and we decided to cut the heart off and keep the bear. But the point is I was addressing the wrong concern. So remember that your fears and questions may not even occur to Kid BlahLaLa, so be sure you're only answering questions he does have and not planting new ones.

Last little note: books I got for my son are probably more helpful to younger kids. If you do give your son any books, please take time to read whatever "Note to parents" page they include, because of course the kid will read that too.

Apologies for my long-windedness. You sound like a wonderful friend and parent, and your son is going to be okay, largely because you are making sure of that. So last but NOT least, is somebody taking care of you?
posted by whoiam at 10:47 AM on May 28, 2013

Response by poster: All of this was super helpful, thanks. And I think it'll continue to be helpful going forward. I sat down with KidBlahLaLa and told him in very simple terms what's happening...and he just sort of said, "Okay." He didn't ask a lot of questions. He didn't cry or ask why, or any of that. I think it's still not really real to him, and that's okay for now.

Vagaries of the end-of-school business and differing summer plans means he hasn't actually seen Sick Friend yet, though he's seen a photo of her bald. He knows that I've been spending one day a week with her (it's another topic - but that's a way that's working really well for those of us on Team Sick Friend right now -- let people sign up for an entire day when they can drive her, keep her company, feed her, run errands, or whatever she needs, etc.). In short, he knows it's happening but he's not upset about it. Maybe there'll be time for that later. Maybe Sick Friend'll be in the amazingly small percentage of people who has a stellar outcome and Kid BlahLaLa will never have to really deal with it. Only time will tell.

Fucking cancer.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:06 PM on June 28, 2013

My hunch, extrapolating from my own experiences with death and sickness as a kid, is that the idea of someone dying won't be really real to him until they die.

Fuck cancer. From a distance. With some kind of explosive destructive fucking tool.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:18 AM on August 17, 2013

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