Feature Archive

When the Diagnosis is Serious

What do you tell your kids when you get really sick?

WebMD Feature

May 1, 2000 (Berkeley, Calif.) -- When physician Wendy Schlessel Harpham went to the hospital with severe back and leg pain in the fall of 1990, she faced a devastating diagnosis: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system.

A few hours later when Harpham's husband Ted returned home from the hospital, he, too, faced a difficult situation: what to tell the couple's three young children, who were then 6, 4, and not yet 2 years old, about their mother's illness, sudden hospitalization, and absence.

When parents fall ill -- if only with a bad cold, the flu, or a strained back -- caring for young children becomes challenging. A serious illness, however, presents not only the practical dilemma of how to keep the day-to-day logistics going, but a host of psychological challenges, as well. What should you tell the children? When do you tell them, and how much?

The Harphams told their children the truth right from the beginning. In the book she subsequently wrote, When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children (HarperCollins, 1997), Harpham emphasizes that telling the truth is necessary "to establish and maintain a bond of trust."

"Your sons and daughters need to be able to believe you, their parents, in order to grow up into adults who, in turn, can trust others," she says. "With the added stress and uncertainty of your illness, being unfailingly honest gives your children assurance in a sea of uncertainty." Her book comes with a companion volume for children and provides resources along with detailed information and an inspiring message.