How to nurture your child’s mental health when a family member is ill
Just lending an ear and allowing your child to ask you questions and talk it out can make all the difference.
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This past month has been extremely tough for me. I just got back from a trip to Philadelphia to see my dad Greg who is in the Intensive Care Unit at Jefferson Hospital because of heart issues. His situation was so delicate that we did not know if he would live or die. Unbelievably, a day before I was scheduled to come back to Georgia, he woke up from an induced coma and shocked us all. He is on his way back to recovery but even after six weeks in the hospital he still has a long way to go. And with all the running around back and forth to the hospital, the stress, crying and just trying to be there for my mother, I somehow forgot about my kids' well-being. And it didn’t hit me that my kids knew anything about what was going on until my 7-year-old Milan walked up to me and said, "Mommy, is Pop-Pop dead?"
I was floored and soon realized that Milan was well aware of what was going on. At least she knew enough and noticed that her Pop-Pop was in a bad situation. I never talked to my kids about it or even addressed what was going on. I thought that was the right thing to do, to let my kids know as little as possible. But where I fell short was in my understanding of how kids stress too. Especially if they are left to daydream and wonder about what’s going on. In Milan’s mind, her grandfather was dead or headed that way and goodness knows how she'd been coping with that, or if she’d been distraught or crying at night or sad all day. And I really felt bad for her. But there is a way to nurture your child's mental health when a close family member is facing sickness.
Share, but don’t over-share
I wasn't sure if I should share information about my dad's condition with Milan, but it's OK to tell a child the circumstances, like the fact he was in the hospital and not feeling well. How much you share depends on the child's age and maturity. Keep critical facts (like when he was on life support) private. You still have to remember that kids don't need to worry unnecessarily.
Go for a hospital visit
If the person is not in critical condition, perhaps you can take your child to the hospital for a visit. Some hospitals don't allow kids under a certain age. But if possible take the child, because that will lift any burden off his heart about that person.
Let your child ask questions
Just lending an ear and allowing your child to ask you questions and talk it out can make all the difference. Your child really needs to lean on you for understanding. No child should be left to his own devices to figure out what's happening. It definitely causes undue stress and frustration that could pour out and affect him in school, and his emotional health. Check out these books as well.
When Someone is Very Sick by Jim Boulden