Dear Carolyn / Readers respond to kids seeing grief, illnesses, pain
Readers give advice about children who have learned and grown from sharing grief and illness with their elders.
While I’m away, readers give the advice.
On young children who witness pain:
When my son was nearly 2, I had a baby who died in the hospital. My husband and I were devastated, of course. We held a funeral. Family came to visit. The house was full of flowers and donated meals, etc. None of this was hidden from my son.
My now-5-year-old son doesn’t seem to be damaged at all. In fact, he developed a keen sense of empathy, and has a special way of detecting when someone is distressed, and finding the right words to say. Maybe he had that ability before his brother died, but certainly the experience sharpened it.
I am sure that talking about the baby helps my son. (We still talk about him often, of course, we miss him every day.) We don’t give silly answers to deep questions, like: What happens when you die? We answer truthfully: I don’t know, but I think the baby is with the God who loves him.
Grief is complicated and powerful. You don’t screw around with it by lying.
Because of chronic abdominal pain, I often sat, read, watched TV or interacted with my children while using a heating pad. One day, the heating pad slipped off and my 3-year-old daughter immediately picked it up and placed it gingerly on the painful area. This has become a wonderful memory for both of us.
Today, that little girl is a wonderful, caring, nurturing, intuitive teacher. We all wish to shield our children, but they learn and grow from sharing in our lives as much as their age allows.
My mother had one surgery when I was 4 and another when I was 7. She slept a lot, too — but that was also when I learned to read. She had me sit on her bed and read to her, and she would help me sound out words.
She continued to have health problems, including a cancer diagnosis when I was 9, but we continued my reading to her when she was in bed, which was good for both of us, I think. I also took on more chores as I got older to compensate, and reading became my way of comforting myself.
Something I learned in training for my years as a hospice volunteer is that a child will keep processing grief for a loved one as she or he ages. It’s important for a surviving parent or caregiver to bring up the topic every year or so, without flogging the issue, to give the child a forum for voicing his loss as it currently affects him.
It’s easy to forget, as we try to move on from our own losses, that the little people in our lives are seeing life through different prisms as they age.
On wanting to keep a cancer diagnosis quiet:
My longtime friend of over 25 years has had breast cancer four times, the most recent diagnosed as chronic breast cancer. We were all devastated.
No, she did not ask me not to share with anyone else. Why not? Because she knew how the news affected me.
I was there for her, to cry/lean on. I was there to take her to all her chemo appointments. I was there for her, always.
But, and this is big, I needed a friend to lean on. That friend couldn’t be her, so I turned to another friend, and my friend who is sick understood.
I understand being private, but this wasn’t gossip. This was sharing sad news because someone cared.
In my 20s, I had a friend disclose personal information to me and ask me not to tell anyone. For about a month I was the only one in a group of six good friends who knew, which was very uncomfortable for me since everyone else asked me point-blank whether anything was going on.
In my 30s it was more serious because a person swore me to secrecy about something and then would slyly reference the “secret” in group settings.
Since then I am upfront with people about not keeping secrets for them. If it’s a secret, then don’t tell me. (If I accidentally find something out, that’s a whole different matter.) My friends are OK with that.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew it was going to affect a lot of things but I didn’t want to tell everyone I knew — just didn’t want to have all those conversations — so I specifically said to the people I did tell that they could tell anyone else.
I ended up with a notice that my billable hours were too low — my boss didn’t tell my firm’s financial manager “out of respect for your privacy.”
Keeping a secret isn’t doing you a lot of favors. I also think cancer is mythologized too much.