My Mom Was Dying, and Nobody Told Me
by Brennan C. Wood and Darcy Walker Krause
Sitting in my office on Valentine’s Day, my Facebook pinged with someone tagging me to a post. The post contained a link to Jon Mehlman’s powerful and loving tribute to his wife, Marla, in The Atlantic titled, “My Wife Was Dying, and We Didn’t Tell Our Children.” Mr. Mehlman shares how he and his wife decided to withhold her terminal diagnosis from their children to shield them from the pain of her, ultimately fatal, cancer. As I read this story, the 12-year-old in me wished I could talk to Mr. Mehlman and share my experience.
It was the night of my 12th birthday. I walked into our living room to find my Grandmother and my Great Uncle Joe sitting in the dark talking in hushed tones. My Grandmother’s brother was a highly regarded doctor who lived halfway across the country. He was in our home for a very rare visit. I vividly remember the uneasiness I felt in the pit of my stomach, knowing that I walked in on an important conversation. Joe looked me right in the eye, and he said in a kind tone, “Brennan, your mom is going to die.” In a state of shock, I yelled back at him, “No she is not! You are wrong!” as I ran out of the room. Three days later, my mom died.
My mom, Doris, was only 36 years old. My dad, Frank, was only 38. They had three kids and a successful business. They had been in an epic love story since middle school, and that love radiated down to us kids. Until my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer about 18 months before she died, my childhood can only be described as idyllic. Unfortunately, my parents had no tools to navigate the rough terrain of her illness and impending death. I only knew my mom was sick because of conversations with my older brother and sister. My parents never had a conversation with any of us about the reality of her medical situation. My Great Uncle Joe was the first and only person to tell me the truth. My parents were incredibly well-intentioned and loving, but they were misguided in their efforts to shield us from the pain of her illness.
I was lucky enough to land at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families after my mother’s death where I learned that grief is natural, normal, and healthy. I learned that we grieve as deeply as we love. Being with the other kids in the program — and the caring adult staff and volunteers — saved me. The program so profoundly changed my path that I began volunteering as a teen, have been a staff member for the last 15 years, and now am the Executive Director. My career helping grieving families has enabled me to smooth out so many of the rough edges of my grief over my mother’s death. It also affords me the opportunity to try to help others from making some of the mistakes that my parents made.
As part of my job, I work with the umbrella agency, the National Alliance for Grieving Children. I have partnered with Darcy Walker Krause, an NAGC Board Member and the Executive Director of Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia, a similar organization to The Dougy Center, to share best clinical practices and tips for others going through similar situations.
Although I am certain many of us can relate to the idea of shielding children that Mr. Mehlman shared in his article, we know as professionals in the field that it can cause real, long term negative consequences.
In 1980, John Bowlby, the “Father of Attachment Theory,” looked at how attachment in children affects their grief and mourning process when a parent dies and identified three conditions that are critical to healthy grief processing for a child: (1) a secure relationship with the parent who died; (2) receiving prompt, accurate information about what happened, with the opportunity to ask questions and have them answered honestly, and being permitted to participate in family grieving through funeral or memorial services; and (3) the comforting presence of his or her surviving parent or caregiver with the assurance that the relationship will continue. Bowlby warned of a risk to healthy grief processing when one or more of these three conditions were not present.
While grief theory has certainly evolved since Bowlby first set out this standard, all three of these conditions he identified are still recognized as clinical best practices for a grieving child. Two of these circumstances — a secure relationship with the parent who died and receiving prompt and honest information — often begin before the death of a parent when there is an advanced, serious illness like cancer. Although the security of the relationship cannot always be controlled, giving honest information is a controllable factor and even can foster resiliency when the relationship was not secure prior to the death. Therefore, clinicians consistently emphasize the importance of relaying accurate, honest information to a child about a parent or loved one’s illness in terms the child can understand developmentally. This lays the groundwork for the child’s healthy grief processing.
The Importance of Conversation
Although many adults are uncomfortable discussing death and dying, avoiding open and honest communication can have negative consequences for a child:
- Being dishonest teaches a child to not trust the dying parent and/or the surviving parent. This sense of distrust can extend to other relationships with previously trusted adults.
- Even if you think a child does not know the truth, they often do. Kids can sense when something is wrong. In our collective experience, there have been many times when a child talks about knowing the truth about a situation when their parent doesn’t think they have any idea. In one example a boy actually said, “ My dad killed himself, but don’t tell my mom. She thinks it was a car accident.”
- In today’s age of social media or just old-fashioned gossip, children often find out information from which adults may have been shielding them. It is better for a child to find out information about a dying parent or a parent’s death from a trusted, caring adult.
- If a child is not aware that their parent is dying, that child will lose the opportunity to have important and meaningful final conversations with that parent. Often, the resentment or sadness a child feels about this lost opportunity comes years later when the child can analyze the decisions the parents made in that moment.
Conversely, there are many positive attributes to telling children that a parent or loved one is dying:
- The child will have the opportunity to experience the dying process on his or her own terms, and decisions the child may make at this time will be informed by the reality of the situation.
- Final conversations and wishes with the child and surviving caregiver can happen in an open and honest way.
- The child will feel a part of the family dynamic and not “less than” or isolated from what is happening within the family.
- This open and honest knowledge gives the child and parents an opportunity to deepen relationships by going through this process together, strengthening both the child’s bond with the dying and surviving parent.
For More Information
In our experience of serving over 45,000 grieving children and their families at The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, serving over 20,000 grieving children and their families at Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and through our affiliation with the National Alliance for Grieving Children & Families, we have listened to thousands of kids who wish that they were told the truth. We have never had one single child say that they wished that they were lied to.
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About the Authors: Brennan C. Wood is Executive Director at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon. Darcy Walker Krause is Executive Director at Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.