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Absentee Father Dying

“I was wondering how I tell my teenage children that their absentee father has cancer and will die soon.”

Truthfully and carefully. Gather the children together and tell them you have some sad news. Say, “Your father is ill. He has cancer and he is not going to get better.” Stop and let it sink in. Answer any questions truthfully to the best of your ability.

I can guess from the fact that the father has apparently not called his children and told them himself that you have a strained relationship with the father or none at all, and that the children have had little or no contact. However he is their father and they might want to see him or call or write to him. Facilitate such requests if it is possible and safe for the children to visit this person.

Honesty is important here. It’s OK to say you have not had a good relationship with the father but you are sorry he is dying and you are sorry the children will lose a parent. It’s OK to cry. If the children are angry that the man has not been in their lives, support them but gently point out they may want to rethink this before it is too late.

Parents struggle with how to talk to their children about the “Big, Bad D’s” which is what I call such difficult issues as death (or life-threatening disease) divorce, desertion, drug use, detention in prison. First of all they want to spare their children the pain of knowing. Second they can’t find the right words especially when talking to a young child.

Some parents decide to keep such news a secret. Bad idea. There is no such thing as a family secret anyhow…it never stays a secret long. When the child finds out the secret there is double pain: the knowledge itself and the sinking realization that one parent is gone and the other can’t be trusted to tell the truth. This leaves the child an emotional orphan.

Some parents wait too long to share such momentous news so the child hears about it from someone else. It is understandable that the parent needs to think about how to tell the children (or asks for help in doing so) but a parent should not wait too long especially in these days of instant communication.

Another reason to tell children such news is that even young kids are attuned to the parent’s moods. They read our facial expressions and body language quite well. My daughter at age three saw me at the moment I learned my grandfather was dying. “Mommy, why are you so mad?” she asked. She read my frowning as “mad” when actually I was trying to decide whether to hop on a plane that night and was feeling both harassed and sad. But she did easily pick up that I was upset.

The mother wrote back after she read my answer. “Thank you so much for your response, it was so helpful. I did speak to the children. One child who has had no relationship with the father seemed to be indifferent. The other who has reached out on several occasions to be knocked down later, looked like he had been hit with a brick. Neither had any questions or comments and that worries me. I did point out that they should think about reaching out to their father and if they had any questions that they could ask me anything at anytime. I also told them that it was OK to have their feelings about the father whether good or bad. Any more advice on how to get them through this difficult period?”

My answer: Give them both time. They need to process the news and their feelings. Indifference can mask deep feelings so both could be hurting.

None of the Big, Bad, D’s” are easy to deal with or talk about. But approaching children with truth and compassion, and validating whatever feelings they have, works much better than keeping secrets.