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How do we talk to our 6 ½ year old son about the illness and potential death of a family member? His grandfather (my father) has quite suddenly become very ill and has been hospitalized. He has pneumonia and they subsequently have found some unexplained bleeding and that he has leukemia (quite a shock as he was walking around just a few days ago). All this to say that he is up against quite a few challenges, any one of which could be fatal. Taken all together, his prognosis is not very good. We want to talk to our son about his grandfather and aren't sure what to say to him or how to present the situation to him. He knows that Granddad is very sick and in the hospital. He also knows that I am spending a lot of time there. Any advice would be appreciated.


Charlotte Cowan, M.D. Replied: Let me begin by saying that I am sorry about your father's illness and impressed that you are taking the time to help your son through this difficult time. The first rule with children and any serious problem -of which impending loss is the best example—is to be simple, straightforward and honest in your explanation of what is happening. You are already doing this. If you expect your father to die, you may say this to your son making sense of it as best you can and in a way that is consistent with your religious beliefs. Do not tell your son that your father is going to heaven if you do not believe that. When you tell him that your father is going to die—and that we all will die some day—make sure he knows that YOU are young and healthy and will not die until, like his Grandfather, your children are grown up with children of their own. Make it clear to your son that you are happy to answer any questions that he has. You do not need to fill his head with medical diagnoses and adult subtleties, but he will appreciate being included in what is happening and having his fears addressed. Let your son know that, although his grandfather is very sick, no matter what happens you will make sure that he is not in pain and that he is not alone. This is very comforting for children (as indeed it is for the dying adult.) It is also helpful for your son to feel as if he can help. He can: he should be invited to visit his grandfather in the hospital—and be involved in carrying in the flowers or making a card or both. Your son will carry these memories forever: he helped you and he was there for his grandfather at a time of need. Best of luck as you move forward and above all trust your instincts. Your son will do fine and so ultimately will you. You are showing him how to help care for those you love and this is one of life's most important lessons.
Posted On 2008-04-19 10:00:40
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