When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my youngest daughter was only a little over one. I had two surgeries in less than four months, the second one being much more invasive and traumatic on all of us. It was very difficult to cope with having a wound from your ear, down to your clavicle, and then over to the edge of your shoulder. But, it was equally painful to have a young one crying and confused as to why mom couldn’t hold her close. Tragic circumstances, whether it is cancer, a car wreck, a house fire or even death can be very tough to explain to toddlers. Although each family – and circumstance – is unique, this is what I learned about talking with my toddler when it came to tragic situations.
1. Be open and honest.
Even at a young age, we told our daughter that I had to go to the doctor and would have a “boo-boo” when I came home. When my father had radical reconstructive surgery, my mother had cancer surgery, my mother-in-law was in the emergency room, etc., we were honest with all of our girls. When someone died, we told our girls how that person was now in no pain and in heaven. However, the amount of information we shared with our teenager was vastly different than with our toddler, but we didn’t hide anything
2. Be positive.
Our family’s faith is incredibly important to us and we pray about everything. We teach our children to trust God, no matter what happens in life. In each circumstance when something unexpected or terrible hit, we focused on our faith, rather than fear. We trusted the doctors and other healthcare workers with our family members and friends. We chose to believe and speak positively about the outcomes as well. We took one thing at a time, one day at a time, and chose to have joy and peace-one step at a time. Remaining positive helped all of us. Even in death, we put the spotlight on the beauty experience in heaven and how thankful we are for the great memories.
3. Be creative.
Sometimes when doubt, worry or grief knocked at the door and when the tears began to flow, we created something. When my brother got third degree burns on his arms and hands, we made get well cards. When people die, the act of making cookies and answering questions or planting flowers and remembering times of laughter may aid in the tough times.
4. Be transparent.
There are days when you need to cry. And there are days when you want to punch a hole in the wall or scream. There are even days when you want to curl up in your bed and never get out. Talk these things out with your toddlers. Emotions are NOT bad. They only become bad when we handle them incorrectly. Communicating simply and clearly – I miss granddaddy today and it is making me cry; I am upset Aunt Sophie is sick and I am mad at the sickness – is healthy. But make sure your little one knows your down days are not because of them, let them express their feelings as well, and give hugs!
Above all, never give up. You are never alone in the midst of tragedy. Reach out to others to walk this road with you and your toddler. You will get through it…one tiny step at a time.
How did you tell your child about tragic circumstance?