parent opinion

'In the days before my husband's death from cancer, we chose to tell our boys the truth.'

When my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2013, we had to make a decision about how we were going to manage the disease for him, but also for our two little boys who were just four and six years old at the time.

For us, we needed to find a balance between honesty with the boys and ensuring that they didn’t become scared and anxious.

We sought advice and guidance from counsellors, and we chose to explain that their dad was unwell.

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I believe it is so important to speak to children honestly about the end of life and provide them, in a kind and respectful way, with the tools to understand the process.

We explained cancer to them using the right words, and then when they asked more questions we explained in simpler terms that it was like a computer game where there were cells floating around in Daddy and that the doctors and Daddy were trying to kill the cells with different medicine.

This simple explanation allowed the boys to understand as best they could what was happening. Importantly, they knew that we were being honest with them – even at their young ages, they both wanted answers.

When Allistair became so unwell that we needed to have more intervention and more hospital visits, we continued to explain to the boys what was happening.

Yes they became upset, and yes it was heartbreaking, but to this day I am happy with Allistair’s and my decision to be open with the boys.

As the disease progressed towards Allistair’s death, we started to explain this to the boys as well.

There are some books you can access about death that are supported by various cancer charities, and these were very useful, but I’ve found that using your own words is truly the best way to make kids feel safe.

In the days leading up to Allistair’s death, we allowed the boys to see their dad whenever they wanted to. We let them lie with him in his hospital bed and we let them know that Daddy was going to have to go soon because we couldn’t fight the cells anymore.

talking to kids about death
"We let them know that Daddy was going to have to go soon because we couldn’t fight the cells anymore." Image: Supplied
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Whilst this is the most heartbreaking thing that I have ever had to do, I know the way the boys have coped since Allistair’s death has been largely due to us being honest with them.

I also encouraged others to speak of Allistair in front of the boys after he passed. We talk about him on an almost daily basis, we have pictures of him everywhere and the boys have shirts and things that remind them of him.

What I can say is that in talking openly about the disease, its progression and Allistair’s journey to passing, the boys were able to see that emotions were good, that we could be scared and we could miss their dad but we could also remember him, celebrate his life and live our lives to make him proud.

The boys have created their own rituals - each anniversary of Allistair’s death we write a note to their dad and release balloons, and we then make a caramel mud cake - that was his favourite!

On his birthday, we also make a cake and play some of Allistair’s favourite music, watch a movie we know he loved and a video we have of memories with him. All of these rituals help the boys to remember, feel safe in their emotions and continue to move forward.

Allistair and the boys. Image: Supplied.

This openness of conversation meant that the impact of seeing adults grieve was less confronting for the boys.

It’s not a comfortable thing to do, having these conversations, but it has definitely helped us manage our way through an awful situation.

The outcome was not what I ever wanted, but I know that I have two little boys who now have the tools to work with their emotions, have compassion for others and that is a great legacy their father has left for them.

Rechelle Leahy is the Vice President of the National Rural Women's Coalition and was named as one of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence in 2019 for her advocacy work. She is a passionate advocate for women's rights, rural, regional and remote Australia and what she sees as the much needed 'Death Positive' movement.

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