“Talking to Kids about Cancer and Death” by guest Mug Upper, Sarah MacLaughlin

When I was a freshman at University of Maine at Farmington, my very first roommate was Sarah MacLaughlin, today’s guest Mug Upper. Sarah Sunshine (as I have always called her) was a free spirited, cool chick. My roommate was supposed to be my childhood friend Heather but she ended up going to UNH and at the last minute, I was assigned Sarah. I don’t think I even knew her name before I arrived on campus. Younger than me, she had done so many things I hadn’t done yet and she was always ready for an adventure. As people do, we each found our own place and friends at college and eventually drifted apart. We lost touch and in the meantime, life happened. Interestingly, we both lived out west but ended up back in Maine and thanks to Facebook, we reconnected.

A few months before I was diagnosed with cancer, we got together for the first time in about 27 years and I could not take my eyes off her. It was like being 18 years old again and our gray hairs and wrinkles had always been there. Oh, and that smile! Her soul shined and I remember feeling so comforted to have her back in my life. I was amazed to find out she was a published author and so accomplished in the field of child development and social work.

Then cancer happened. Or rather, kicked in my door. Our plans to get together and talk about writing were put on hold. I fell into the swirl of “Cancerland” and felt disconnected from regular life. And then, Sarah became one of my compass points throughout my treatment. I think I got a card or gift or Facebook message from her every week – even when she traveled to Europe. She understood how to write in a real way that acknowledged the fear, anger and sadness that came with a cancer diagnosis, but she also sent such affirming encouragement to kick ass and live out loud.

Her second book, Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual is about to come out and I want to help her meet her pre-order goal. Her guest blog will give you a flavor of her authenticity and I know you will want to read more…

For any Mug Uppers that place a pre-order by 7/9/19 and leave a comment on one of the Mug Up Mermaid social channels, you will receive a special, customized gift from Mug Up Mermaid! Please share this post and encourage your friends to join the campaign. Come on Tribe, let’s help her meet that goal!

If we were together for a Mug Up, Sarah says her beverage choice would be a coffee with coconut creamer. Makes sense to me – she is comforting like a good cup of coffee, with a sense of quirkiness, like coconut creamer. So, here is today’s guest Mug Up – “Talking to Kids about Cancer and Death”.

sarah heart

You have a heart on your shirt Mommy?” My son asked me when he was two-and-a-half. I looked down at my “I hate cancer” t-shirt.

“Actually, it’s a heart turned upside-down. My shirt says, ‘I don’t like cancer.’” And because I couldn’t bear to hear him ask, What’s cancer mommy? I quickly added, “Cancer is a sickness that people get sometimes.” At the time this satisfied him, so I successfully bought another day to think about how to talk to my child about this tough topic.

It is a hard subject in general, further fraught by my own personal history. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when I was twenty-five. It being “the best kind of cancer to have,” I consider myself pretty lucky. I even dodged any intense or invasive treatment—the surgery was minor and radioactive iodine sounds worse than it actually is. But it took me a long time to work through feelings about it. Feeling like my cancer, “wasn’t that bad,” or “doesn’t really count,” are among the nuances. It was much more than survivor’s guilt.

When I was given a clean bill of health, I still felt scared and nervous about the future. I can’t foresee what is to come any better than you can. Death is something that is true and hard about life, it just wasn’t something I had previously thought much about. Someone recommended I read the book Dancing in Limbo, which I did. It helped me make friends with the unknown and define an outlook that was more hopeful. Even though my prognosis was fantastic, (it is the best kind of cancer, after all) I was still rocked by the truth that my body had housed and grown those rogue cells—it was terrifying.

Figuring out how to talk about cancer, with its association with death, is a hard nut to crack. I have trouble processing and understanding the realities of it all. I don’t have perfect answers about how to navigate these tough conversations. But I do have some suggestions and resources to offer:

  • Talk to another grown-up. Talking things through with someone before talking to your child can only be beneficial. If you can find someone who will holds space and not offer any advice, even better.
  • Don’t hide it. Kids will think even worse things are going on if they are not informed. It’s okay to be honest about how you feel. For example, “I feel very sad about Grandpa’s death. Even though it happened a long time ago, it’s hard for me to talk about.” Acknowledging your own hesitation can go a long way toward normalizing this complex issue.
  • Be straightforward and age appropriate. Share the facts and your feelings—for a four-year-old you might say, “Aunt Trudy has a sickness that can’t be caught like a cold or cough. She will be really tired for several months and her hair may fall out too. I’m worried about her, but I think she’s going to be okay.”
  • Honor the tension between, “I don’t know,” and, “It’ll be okay.” The American Cancer Society’s website, which is an excellent resource, suggests saying the following, “Sometimes people do die from cancer. I’m not expecting that to happen because the doctors have very good treatments these days, and this type of cancer usually does go away with treatment.”
  • Talk about death when it comes up in smaller, less personal ways. Use these teachable moments and discuss the news story, or the dead animal you found. DO NOT use the term sleep to refer to death. This is confusing and scary for children.
  •  Share your family’s views about death and what might happen after. The children’s book, The Next Place, offers lovely illustrations and reassuring sentiments. This is a good time to talk about your family’s religion or any spiritual beliefs. Tear Soup is an excellent workbook for dealing with the grief associated with any loss.
  • Read books specifically about cancer. Billed as a hopeful, helpful book for kids with a loved one who has cancer, Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings is supportive and educational.

This all reminds me of an exchange I had with my three-year-old charge when I was a nanny some years back. He and I had been frequenting a pond behind a huge cemetery. We’d sit on a rock and feed the ducks and hissing geese. We had been plenty of times before, but he finally hit the right age and began to wonder. On the drive out one day he suddenly looked around and asked me,

“What is this place?”

“It’s a cemetery.”

“What’s a cemetery?”

“It’s a place where people are buried after they die.”

“What’s die?”

“People die when their bodies get worn out from being old or very sick,” I responded as calmly as I could, keeping in mind that I was conversing with someone else’s child. He was spot-on with his three-year-old persistence.

“They die and go under the ground?”

“Some people do, yes.”

“What happens after that?”

The ultimate question.

“People have lots of different ideas about that. But no one really knows.” He thought about this for a moment while I held my breath and waited.

“I guess it’s just a mystery,” he said brightly.

Indeed, it is the biggest mystery of them all.

Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and a human development nerd. She helps parents (and others who interact with children) show up authentically and model great communication skills and emotional intelligence. Sarah is writing her second book, Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual, and it’s now available for preorder for a limited time. Because it’s the good news AND the bad news that kids are always watching us. Let’s focus on what’s important: who WE are and how that affects our relationships with children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s