Breaking Devastating News to Children

How to tell kids about a parent's cancer diagnosis.

Try to break the news as honestly as possible–yet in an age-appropriate way.

Herkimer the Horrible

“Do you remember me telling you kids about when I worked in the kitchen at summer camp?” Laura, ten years old and full of curiosity, and Sarah, a freshly-minted eight, nodded their heads, not sure where this conversation would lead. They knew Pedro had been in pain; that he’d been to the hospital.

“Did I ever tell you what we named the giant bread-making machine? The one with the hook bigger than your arm?” More nods.

“What’d you name it? I forgot.” Sarah bit my hook.

“Herkimer. We called that big machine Herkimer.” More tentative nods. How does one break the news to little kids that the rug will be ripped out from underneath their little lives?

“Well, Daddy has something growing in his neck and the doctors said it looks kinda like bread dough. It’s a tumor of some sort. I named it Herkimer the Horrible because it’s big and not very nice.”

“Is it cancer?” Laura wanted to know. Cancer?! She shouldn’t know anything about that word.

“We don’t know yet. The doctors took a chunk of Herkimer out and they’re sending it to a lab where they will do tests on it and figure out what it’s really made up of. We’ll know in a few days what it is for sure.”

“So, we’ve named the beast, and when we find out what he is, we’ll know how to fight him,” Pedro added. His voice shook a little from the force of his bravado.

We’d named the beast—he was something palpable, not just cancer. Ok, so we’re a little weird to name a tumor in Pedro’s neck. Somehow, I hoped it would make a difference. It gave me hope that like bread dough, we could work it, bake it and be done with it.

If only.

“Oh,” Sarah giggled. How could she giggle at a time like this? How could she not? She had helped me make bread countless times. Envisioning a lump of dough in her daddy’s neck did sound a little odd.

“Oh.” I could see tears building in Laura’s eyes. Older, wiser and more aware of what ‘cancer’ and ‘tumor’ might mean in her life, she understood that this was no laughing matter.

We leaned into each other, the four of our family, and tried to sniffle, cry and giggle all alone. Each of us in a different sea, reaching out and clinging to each other for solace—hoping to stay afloat no matter what that dough turned out to be.

Have you ever had to break devastating news to a child?  How old was the child?  What did you tell him or her?

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Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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