A Child’s Perspective on the Seriously Ill

Today, Momma’s setting down her beer for a more serious discussion…

How do you talk to your children about seriously ill family & friends? Death & dying? There’s a thin line between informing & scaring your kids, so talking to your kids about serious illness & death can be challenging topics to bring up. Sometimes, you need to just go with the flow and give children serious information on a need to know basis. Other times… well, life & death present more opportunities than you can wrap your brain around.

My 6 year old is no stranger to funerals. Her first experience with death was at 8 months old, when my father-in-law passed away due to weak heart & lungs stemming from diabetes complications. Jimbo was in the first years of a 10 year health-decline when the hubs & I started dating; Jim was bitter and moderately intimidating. I never truly knew a healthy man… and I never felt like I could live up to his high expectations. Back then, my voice wasn’t as loud & proud as it is today. All of that changed when I gave birth to his grand-daughter, Natalie. The morning after she was born, he phoned us to ask, in his brash voice How are my girls? on their way in to the hospital. I’ll never ever forget that. I don’t think the hubs will either.

In the short 8 months Natalie had with her Papa, they bonded. How do I know? Here’s an example: We never used a baby-voice when we talked to Natalie, but her Nana did, and every time Nana saw Natalie she would squeal and want to hold her, talking in her baby-voice, and Natalie would start screaming bloody murder. But Papa? His weathered body was usually covered in oxygen tubes & IVs, and his rusty voice would simply yell Hey Natalie, come give your Papa a big kiss! And my first-born would go right to him, no fear, no tears!

If you’ve been following me over the last few weeks, you are well aware of what my family is going through with my 7 week old niece. It is interesting to talk to my 6 year old about her seriously ill baby cousin. But I believe some of her very early experiences have taught her more than we imagined. Natalie has always been a very smart girl, but she does have her moments of sensitivities that don’t always reveal her best side. When it comes to the topic of the seriously ill, Natalie practically matures right before our eyes. She wanted to see her cousin Delaney when she was in the NICU even though we told her she was being supported by machines, IVs, etc. We brought Natalie right outside of the room, and she was ready, but they wouldn’t allow anyone under 18 in. My sister & BIL thought it was for the best, as they believed it could’ve traumatized her. But I knew my tough little cookie just wanted to see her cousin and touch her just to give her a little of that amazing, tenacious spirit they both seem to have. I don’t believe Natalie’s focus would’ve been the machines, it would’ve been her cousin, and seeing the picture she made for her on Delaney’s bed, of course. When we visited Delaney at home 2 weeks later, Natalie was a little distracted, but about an hour or so before we left, I asked her if she wanted to hold her baby cousin, and she practically jumped at the chance. When Natalie holds babies, there’s just something in her eyes… it’s a very pure love. Hard to look away because it feels like something special, almost spiritual or magical is happening. Yes, I realize I’m so beyond biased it’s not even funny, but cut me some slack! 

Last week, Natalie randomly said Momma, I wish it were my birthday so I could blow out all of my candles and wish for Delaney to be all better. I really do, Momma. Still makes my eyes water. Natalie prays for her ill cousin Delaney every night Dear Lord, please help Delaney to be free of machines and medicine so I can play with her… but if medicine won’t help her get healthy, I hope God welcomes her to heaven so she can feel all better and I can play with her in heaven some day… Amen. It’s very sweet, and unlike many prayers Natalie has recited in the past, she changes her prayer about Delaney every night, and asks me to pray for Delaney too and not in your head, Momma. She obviously knows that I think about my niece constantly.

The hubs & I have open, honest conversations with our kids regarding their seriously ill cousin as well as friends & family who have died. They have seen us cry about Delaney and understand that crying is ok. We’ve had a tough couple of years here trying to talk to my children about my folks’ split, Natty’s best friend’s folks’ divorce, random deaths… and now this, on their level. As difficult as these topics are to kick-off, once the conversation is out there, we are always open to answering questions, no matter how deep or difficult they may be to address. Sedona’s not quite asking questions yet, but when/if she has questions, we’ll answer them.

Talking to your children honestly about difficult topics like the seriously ill & dying is key. 

One of the many irks I had with my upbringing was how little I knew about life/sex/death/etc because I was so sheltered. Questions I’d ask weren’t answered by my mother without me feeling like I should be ashamed of the question. I felt very naive well into my 20s. I don’t know how different I would be today if I did have some of those questions answered, or was simply treated better when I asked them. Maybe I would have spent less time worrying about what people think, maybe I would’ve been able to have a conversation with my FIL before he died where I didn’t feel like a failure, or maybe I simply wouldn’t feel so dumb when I do ask questions to people I feel are smarter than I am. I eventually learned that if I was going to get an answer, I either had to figure it out on my own, or ask someone who actually gave a shit about me &/or the topic. I don’t want my own kids to feel that way. I realize this is a tall order, but I’m doing my best to give them what I never had: support & honesty.

I feel sorry for anyone who feels this overwhelming need to shelter their kids from life’s challenging moments, especially if someone close to you becomes ill or dies. Of course, I’d love it if we could dance like princesses & swim with dolphins every day, but that’s not reality. Yes, they are still kids, and we need to make sure we’re not frightening them with too much information, but kids are more resilient than we think. We need to trust in them just as much as they trust in us.

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