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Talking with Children about Grief and Loss

Being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment is accompanied by many fears and losses. The diagnosed person is coping with many losses: health, body, norms, a sense of control. They are also coping with fear of losing relationships and dying.  The National Cancer Institute suggests grief can take the form of feeling emotionally numb, feeling unable to believe the disease is happening, feeling anxiety about being away from one’s family for treatment, feeling depressed, and feeling acceptance.

Children also fear losing their loved one due to cancer. This may mean a fear of death and dying. It may also mean anxiety about:

  • Losing their loved one’s presence.

  • Worrying about their health.

  • Seeing the loved one’s physical and emotional changes.

  • Experiencing changes in how things work (such as changing family roles and responsibilities).

Cancer produces grief that children may not understand or be able to explain. Through diagnosis and treatment there are losses of health, norms, stability, and sometimes of the person themselves. Communication and connection are key. We can explain to our children what is happening, respond to their concerns and confusion, and offer reassurance.


What Am I Feeling?

I am tired all the time.” “I feel sad and I don’t know why.” “I don’t want to do anything.” “I feel scared at night.” “I don’t want you to die.”  “I’m so mad.” “Don’t leave me.

Get Creative: Together, use colored paper and crayons or markers to make a family forest picture. Draw tree trunks for each family member and add colored paper leaves. Add swirls of wind or rain drops. Talk about how our emotions are like the wind or rain. Ask how children are feeling, what emotions are blowing through  or raining  down. Talk about how trees talk to each other through their roots. Draw roots that connect the trees, and add messages of love between the roots.


Losing a Loved One’s Presence

Who will take care of me when you are in the hospital, when you aren’t feeling well?” 

Get Creative: Make a family memory box out of a household container like a tea box or a shoe box. Place special objects or notes inside that remind you of each other. Create new notes before a treatment or during a hard day. Collage or paint the box. Write “I am…” and “We are…” statements and glue them on the lid. Talk as you create together.


Worrying About Their Health

What will happen tomorrow? When will you get better? Will you get worse? Will you die?

Get Creative: Cooking healthy meals helps with our energy and wellness. Talk together about the foods that taste good during treatment. Find some easy recipes, and cook together before treatment, preparing the meals for freezing. Your child can also cook these meals with  another loved adult. Create a “Words to Inspire” centerpiece or menu. Write quotes or loving notes on colorful strips of paper and put them in a vase or glass for a table centerpiece. Talk about your child’s questions while you cook and write together.


Seeing Emotional And Physical Changes 

You’re tired.” “You’re sad.” “You can’t help me with homework.” “You’re sleeping all the time.” “You used to make me breakfast.” “You used to pick me up from school.

Get Creative: Family roles and responsibilities often change during cancer. You can talk about changes in terms of the weather. How does weather change over the seasons? From the sunrise to sunset? Go outside and watch the weather. Take deep breaths together. Move like the weather. Create a shared calendar that keeps track of your medical appointments, record the weather over time, and record other routines that your child might need reassurance about. You can create little icons or emojis for each type of item on the calendar.

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