Q: I have two kids who are 2 and 3. My mom has been very involved in their lives, which has been wonderful for them. Now she has a terminal illness. She's not as available to them, and she's physically different and extremely fatigued. They are obviously aware something is wrong, and we've explained as best we can. I am also struggling, but I am making sure to ask for help when I am overwhelmed. The kids are fine most of the time, but sometimes we get bursts of tears, night waking or meltdowns, which are unusual in our family. We let them get all the feelings out, provide a lot of one-on-one time and try to keep things as consistent as possible. Is there anything else we can do to help with what we're going through now and prepare them for when she's no longer here?
A: I am so sorry, this is an extraordinarily hard ordeal. I cannot tell you why, but my first thought is that I want to switch every pronoun in your question from "we" to "I" and "me." Here's the thing: This is your mom with the terminal illness, and though your children are deeply attached to her, it is hard to compare their potential loss to yours.
I am not necessarily sure this is your situation, but I often run into parents who have lost or are on the brink of losing a parent and are unconsciously transferring their fear, grief and worry onto their children. By all standards, the children are doing fine, but the parent insists on finding strategies, books or the just the right thing to say to guarantee that the kids will be OK.
Is there anything wrong with this transference? No, not really. A good parent doesn't want their children to suffer, and you want to help them now as well as after your mother is no longer here. That's a loving parent. But there's no fixing this scenario. There isn't a way to heal your mom, there isn't a way to change her appearance, there isn't a way to take away your children's fear or tears, and there isn't a way to predict what will happen when she's gone.
What can you do? Well, 2- and 3-year-olds are blessed with a "here and now" mind-set. Your children are living in the present, and the permanence of death is not a concept they can yet fully grasp. I don't know how close to 4 your older child is, but they may begin to have death fears, and again, that is developmentally appropriate.
"Terminal disease" doesn't really mean anything to your children, and so her changing body may be met with some confusion and fear. Don't burden the children with too many details; the important point that you continue to make is that you are OK and the children are safe. Welcome your children's worries and tears, and don't push the kids to visit, but also don't hide your mother. Play it by ear because, as you know, young children's emotions come and go.
It is also important to remember that, because your children are too young to understand the details of what is happening to your mom, they are taking all of their cues from you, as well as other important adults in the house. As they say at the Parent Encouragement Program, "children are keen observers and poor interpreters," so if you are distracted, depressed and angry, your children won't know it is the grief. These preschool ages are a myopic time of life. Young children assume your behavior is about them. I don't want to place undue pressure on your shoulders, but when I see children who are having sleep problems, stomach problems, and eating and toileting issues, I always ask how the parent is coping with this stress. All your emotions run downstream to your children.
With that in mind, here are my ideas:
Experience your own feelings of fear and loss with all the support you need. Children can handle an adult's big emotions; it all just needs to feel safe. Find friends or a support group that will give you the space you deserve to process your own feelings.
Answer only the questions the children ask. Don't volunteer detail after detail. They cannot process it.
Up the connection, and be ready for some neediness. Though this will be exhausting, get ready for your kids to become nervous, especially at night or other times of separation. It is a fine line of allowing them to attach to your leg and pushing them off, but try to increase the physical proximity to ease their nervous systems.
Encourage joy and play. Your children's emotions ebb and flow, and young kids are still amazed by everyday life. Join them in this joy; it is incredibly healing and uplifting.
Find a way for the children to still connect to their grandmother. Maybe they make drawings or sing (while you record it) or take funny pictures . . . there are other ways to send love.
Remember that tears are nature's way of moving grief through the body. Children cry, so try to welcome the tears without too much interference.
Plant a tree or special plant for your mother, and have the children water it. It can provide a nice time to touch on the grief without going too deep.
When in doubt, go back to number one.
Above all, have faith that you can handle this hard transition. Death is the one guarantee, and how you model grief leaves an indelible mark on your children. Don't be afraid to ask for love and help — humans need it. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.