Telling the Children Requires a Certain State of Mind

A brochure called “What Do I Tell the Children?” caught my eye at Dana-Farber’s Blum Patient and Family Resource Center when I arrived early for a checkup and browsed through the literature for patients and families.

It made me look back at the time 15 years ago when I wondered how to tell my three children that I had been diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer, acute myeloid leukemia.

Choosing my words carefully, and using a matter-of-fact tone, were crucial to the endeavor. There would be time for tears, but when telling the kids, I wanted to stay calm.

Blue shield as an aid to staying calm

Years ago, I biked around Prince Edward Island with a college friend. Anne said that if dogs chased us, we could protect ourselves by putting a blue shield in front of us. I tried it, and it “worked.”

I thought of it more as a blue bubble. The dogs left us alone. Of course this is what happened: By imagining the shield, I became so calm that the dogs lost interest. They might have gotten aggressive if they sensed fear.

Before telling my children, I figuratively enveloped my emotions in a blue shield. They picked up on my sense of calm.

Telling the children

On the day that I told them about my diagnosis, the boys, 14 and 17, were in the den watching some kind of sports program. My eleven-year-old daughter was playing school upstairs with her Beanie Babies. I called them into the kitchen, the place for family meetings.

I told them that I had a blood cancer called leukemia, that it was treatable, that I would go to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and that their father would move in during periods when I was in the hospital. (We had been divorced for many years, and the children lived with me.)

Boston Red Sox connection

Ben, the oldest, immediately made the connection between Dana-Farber and its fundraising arm, the Jimmy Fund, and from there to his beloved Boston Red Sox, for which the Jimmy Fund is the official charity.

“You did a great job with the announcement,” he emailed when I asked about his recollections.

Confidence in a good outcome

“You matter-of-factly said it was treatable and you were going to Dana Farber. Any New Englander with a pulse knows all about the Sox-Jimmy Fund connection, and you were smart to mention Dana-Farber, etc. in the first sentence or two of the announcement. In hindsight, I was insufficiently worried about it. It honestly never even crossed my mind that you were going to die. It was a hurdle I was sure you would overcome. I turned out to be correct, but I think I was overconfident at the time.”

Better overconfident than overly fearful.

I assume my middle child, Joe, was equally reassured. The boys went back to whatever they were watching, and Katie went back upstairs to her room.

During the difficult days that followed, my ex-husband kept their routines intact, making their lives as close to normal as can be when your mother is in and out of the hospital. If I do say so myself, my children have turned out pretty well.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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