Education Article /  Telling Your Kids that You are Terminally Ill

Telling Your Kids that You are Terminally Ill

Posted by National CPR Association |

May 22, 2018


It’s never easy to be diagnosed with a terminal illness, especially if your children are still young. This kind of news will be devastating to the whole family, and often times, it might not be clear how and when to break the news to the young ones, much less if they should even be told. It won’t be a surprise if you will have the urge and instinct to hide this from your children to protect them, but doing this might be make things more difficult in the long run. Sharing the news with them and guiding them through their emotions can help lessen their tendencies to become angry, guilty, and confused later on.


Breaking the News


The American Society of Cancer suggests that while it is in fact a good idea to let your children know what is happening, you should take care to do so in a way that they will be able to understand and accept. They are, after all, still children, so you will need to use the kind of language that you know they will comprehend. The worst thing you can do when telling them the news is to tell them all at once, or in a way that will only leave them confused or give them the wrong impression.


Here are some tips:


  • If you have a partner, you might want to share the news with your children together to create a warmer and comforting environment.
  • Reassure your children that everything will be alright and that they will not be alone.
  • If you are a single parent, it will also be understandable for you to want to find someone to take care of your children and make sure they are okay when you are gone. However, it would still be best to tell your children alone instead of bringing in someone who is a stranger to them; the bond between parents and children is incomparable, after all.


We’ve established how to tell your children, but when is the right time to do so? Perhaps the best time would be once you find out that the diagnosis is definite. It won’t do any good to cause them unnecessary stress over something that might not be true, so don’t rush to conclusions immediately. However, it also won’t do to hide the news for as long as you can, even after you’re certain that you are sick. You might be surprised, but children are more intuitive than you think. They can sense when there is a problem, and they will be able to understand when there is something that is not right in your family. Let them be a part of the family and try to prepare them for the things to come. Neglecting to do this may cause your children to harbor negative feelings.


Preparing for Loss


Although it’s never a good thing to be diagnosed with a terminal illness, a small consolation would be that families often have months or even as long as years after the diagnosis to deal with the news. Very rarely does the diagnosis occur when the disease is already in an advanced, terminal stage. Some things to consider:


  • Use the period between the diagnosis and your passing to fully prepare your children – this is another reason why it is a good idea to tell them immediately after the disease is confirmed with a diagnosis. Of course, the length of time you have left to spend with your loved ones will not ease the pain they feel when you reach your terminal stage.


  • Children have a special way of thinking and a more abstract understanding of the realities of life. This is especially true for younger children under the age of 10. It will not make sense to them to hear about what death is, and to accept the fact that you will be gone forever.


  • It is important to make sure that you do not give your children the wrong idea – false hope can be crippling to them and can cause them to develop negative feelings of hurt and even betrayal when they realize the truth. Let your children understand that death means you are not coming back, and that you will no longer be with them physically. Repeat this as many times as will be necessary for them to finally understand and accept this reality.


  • Nothing can truly prepare anyone for the death of a loved one, but talking about it and working through it together can help make coping easier. The more your children are aware of what is happening, the easier it will be for them to cope.


  • Always remind them that you love them, and make sure they understand that your passing will not diminish your love for them.


Additional Resources:


How a Single Parent Can Break the News of Terminal Illness

Helping Your Child Accept Cancer

The Importance of Care and Support Through Terminal Illness

Talk to Your Kids about Your Illness

When You are Seriously Ill