Supporting kids who have lost a parent to cancer

While we were out exploring the city today, my children and I happened upon an extensive installation of paper daffodil tributes organised by the Cancer Council as a Field of Hope. Each daffodil had an individual message or drawing of love. It was beautiful. There was no way to ignore it because it covered the entire lawn in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art which we were walking past.

It was another one of those moments when internally I took a sharp breath fearful of what emotions and conversations it would evoke from my children. Their father, Mick, died from brain cancer five years ago when they were both less than five years old. How could I best support them as we approached it to take a closer look? How would I explain it to them?

In the first few years after Mick died their questions and concerns surprised me and were heart wrenching. I had explained many times as simply as I could that cancer was a disease of the cells creating  lumps in their father’s brain that stopped his brain from working. Yet they could remember a time that Mick had bumped his head under the house and thought this might be the cause of the cancer?

They found the concept of cells confusing. They asked why couldn’t the doctors make him better? Wasn’t there a medicine?

Whenever I bumped my head or became sick with a cold they would become overly concerned because they did not want to lose their other parent.  Each time I assured them that it was very very very unlikely that I would ever get brain cancer and that there were lots of scientists conducting research to try and find a cure for brain cancer and other types of cancer. Eventually they started to draw some comfort from my repetitive, simple messages.

It seems like there are events to raise awareness and funds for research for a cure for brain cancer and all the other types of cancer every week. There are stalls outside our local supermarket, there are walks and swims at our local beach, there are mufti days at pre-schools and schools.

In those initial years of grief I was mindful that these fundraisers and events might make my children more fearful and confused about cancer and the likelihood of it impacting another one of us. I might have found it helpful to attend a walk with others impacted by cancer and passionate about finding a cure, but I decided it would not support my children to be directly involved in such events.

Young children find it difficult to understand probabilities and survival rates. How do you explain that some cancers are rare? That some can be treated and that some can’t? Initially my children were having a hard enough time understanding the concept of death. Therefore, I chose to avoid the events and fundraisers if we could. I figured that over time as they got older we could become more involved in charities. In the meantime we would focus on getting by and trying to embrace the joys of life despite our loss.

Of course, it was inevitable given the prevalence of cancer that in time some of our friends and family would be diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately my children have been older, more capable of understanding the concept of cancer, and the cancer that our loved ones have had has been treatable and beatable. Each time I have been careful, calm, positive but realistic and simply communicated the key facts to my children. They have responded well to this approach.

So it was with all of this in mind that we approached the Field of Hope today. My 8 year old daughter and another young friend asked if they could buy a flower and write their own messages of hope to contribute to the installation.

My daughter wrote ” I hope they find a cure for cancer soon.”

Together we wriggled her message into the ground and shared a quick hug. Despite all my concerns, my racing mind and heart, we didn’t end up talking about our losses or our fears. We didn’t need to. Just the act of contributing, connecting to and admiring the Field of Hope was enough.

This year Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day is officially on Friday 25th August.

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