Feelings and Family


When caring for your child in the hospital, it can be easy to forget what you and others in your family need during this difficult time. Remember that family relationships go both ways – giving and receiving. To work well, even in crises, there has to be mutual giving and receiving. It may be helpful to think about what you and others may need now.

What do my Other Children Need?

  • Ask what they miss most.
  • It is sometimes helpful for them to have something of yours to carry around or some small, symbolic present as a sign that you are thinking of them. And vice verse, they may want you to have something of theirs.
  • Ask your spouse, or the person spending time with them when you can’t, what they talk about missing.
  • Ask other parents of children with cancer what has helped their other children.
  • Talk to the social worker or psychologist about what other parents have done for their healthy children.

What do I Need from my Healthy Children?

  • It is important to think about what you need and what you are missing most from your other children. Sometimes, what you miss is also what they miss most!
  • If you are at the hospital, can you find special telephone time with them to talk about their day? Could they dictate or write an email or text to send to you when they get home from school? Could they call you on Skype?
  • Could there be one special afternoon per week you get to spend with them? Give it a name - talk about it during the week, plan the activity together. It will help refresh you to be involved in activities that are not illness-related, even for an hour.

What Do My Spouse and I Need from One Another?

This is often a forgotten question as you are both so busy trying to take care of your sick child and your other children. But it is worth asking if there is something he or she needs that would help.

  • A compliment.
  • More sleep.
  • A night out of the hospital.
  • A night together.
  • Reassurance.
  • Time to talk about what are the critical things you absolutely will not give up in your family interactions and relationships and what are the things you can let go of for a while.

Talk about how you will divide your time and who will give up what to spend more time with your ill child or with your other children. Try to talk not only about financial concerns, but also about feelings, wishes, and hopes as a parent responding to cancer in your child. You may have different views about this and talking about it may prevent anger and disappointment. You may have to have this conversation several times as circumstances with your ill child change and the demands on the two of you change. But if you keep talking about this, it will help.

Managing Care for a Child When Parents are Divorced

Having a sick child changes the relationship between all parents, including those who are divorced. With things so changed right now, the father or mother of your child who may no longer be your spouse may be more involved with you than ever before, hurting too, and as anxious as you.

This is a tough place to be, but it will be best for your child if you can find a way to share care that draws on your strengths and less on the issues that pulled you apart. Frank talk may be needed about how you will function in this situation.

  • How will the medical information be conveyed? Who will get it from the doctors and with whom will it be shared, and when? Who will talk to the child about the information?
  • How will visiting work?
  • How will you share time with your child, including nights in the hospital?
  • What about your child’s step-parents? How will they be involved or not?
  • How will financial changes in the family due to cancer treatment be worked out?

If these issues seem too difficult to work out, you may want to talk with the hospital or clinic social worker. In some divorced families, things fall into place pretty easily while in others, previous difficulties cause things to erupt when there is a crisis. Previous arrangements for sharing your child’s time may not work now - a different plan may need to be worked out. Typically it is very important for both parents to be involved with their ill child.

What do my Parents Need?

Grandparents often find it devastating when their grandchild has cancer. The world seems upside-down. While grandparents may want to know what is happening medically, they may also need reassurance and time that you don’t always feel you have. Sometimes it is useful to have a relative or family friend who can help you interpret the medical information to your parents.

They worry about you, too, but sometimes that feels like a burden to you. You may not feel fine, but think you should reassure them you are coping well, even when you just want to cry. Also, some grandparents are ill themselves or in a home or living at a distance and unable to travel. This can make it especially hard on you, as you know you need to be there first for your child. You still might feel badly about not being able to do your usual caretaking for your parents. Hopefully, there is someone else who can handle this for you. If not, will they have to recognize that at this time, your child needs you more.

What do I Need from my Parents?

At this tough point in your life, you may wish you could just curl up and cry with a comforting, supporting parent. For those with strong, healthy parents, this may be possible. For others, you may have to be realistic about what your parents are able to provide. This can be a painful part of the cancer experience, as you re-experience old longings about what you would like your parents to be able to provide, but can’t or don’t. Remember where you got additional support if your parents couldn’t provide it. Do you have an older friend, a sibling, and/or a minister on whom you can lean now?

Some parents at a distance can still provide a great deal of emotional strength and support; perhaps even some financial support, if needed.

If your parents want to come to help you and visit your child, it is OK to be a bit “selfish” about when this would be best for you. When do you need your parents? When can they be most helpful to you? Or, if they just need to see you all and give hugs, perhaps they can come for a brief visit, with a plan to come back when your child goes home and you need more help. Or perhaps they can help you take care of your healthy children while you are in the hospital. It is also OK to emphasize that family members who are sick need to come at another time to avoid exposing your family and your children.

It is also possible that your parents have died and that feelings about their loss are re-awakened by this crisis. You may remember how much they loved your child/children and or you may also realize how pained your parent would have been if they knew your child had cancer.

Again, this may be something you want to discuss with a mental health professional at the hospital. These feelings run deep and are important in your availability to care for your child.

Giving and Receiving from Extended Family

Often, as with friends, there are many calls from well-meaning relatives who are shocked by news of your child’s diagnosis and want to know how things are going. If answering such calls feels too hard, see if you can find one person you like talking to who would be willing to share your updates with others in the family.

If extended family wants to visit, perhaps this person can also help arrange who visits when. You may want the visits spread out, so your child is not overwhelmed. You may also want this person to be the one to make sure family understand not to visit if they have a cold or even mild illness or any type of infection. They can also communicate to others if your child’s condition changes and you do not want company at the appointed time.

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