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Preparing our Children

Posted 6/30/2016

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  This is the last, I hope, in a several week series of submitting two blogs on Thursday because I am traveling and away from a computer on Friday. Tomorrow we are heading to our cottage in Maine for ten days, and I can't wait. I will be able to write from there, once we are there, but probably not so easily tomorrow.

  This is a completely different blog from the nerdy one that I entered some hours ago. It actually could not be more different as I am writing about trying to prepare our children for our deaths. There is nothing that is more painful for most parents to consider, and it is usually the first and most intense fear and sadness we have when we are diagnosed with cancer. To some extent, it matters how old our children are, but the primal feelings are overwhelming whether they are preschoolers or grown.

  However old your children are, it is vitally important to take care of legal business. This means a will, designating a guardian if you have minor children, and talking with a financial planner and/or lawyer about the money. If you have small children and a spouse, the guardian part is less important (although we should all, partnered or not, ill or not, have that legal plan in place once we have children). The money part is just as important; if you are employed, your illness and death will mean a reduction in the family's income. If you are a stay-at-home parent, there will need to be hired childcare, and that is expensive. As I write these words, I am recognizing the dry tone, and apologize if it seems harsh. Sometimes taking care of business needs to be considered in a neutral way.

  The break-your-heart hard part, of course, is imagining leaving your child without a mother or a father. Hopefully, you can honestly recognize that there are other people who absolutely love them and will do all they can to help raise them--but that does not fill the very big hole in their hearts and lives. I remember working with a very ill woman who had a loving husband and a 4 year old daughter. She spoke with each of her close friends, assigning them a specific future task (e.g. take her to buy her first bra or her prom dress) and gave her husband a list of these responsibilities. Many parents leave letters or scrap books or special keepsakes with notes explaining their importance. 

  The strategies may be different with older or adult children. Even if our kids are well launched, we know that they still need us (sometimes!), and we feel terrible about all the life events and markers that we will miss. An important gift for our older children is to leave whatever information they will need after our deaths. Spare them having to make painful decisions about funeral choices. Make sure there is a list of all your passwords and the key to the safe deposit box. The Wall Street Journal published a very helpful piece called The 25 Documents you Need Before You Die:

  Hoping that you are reading this long before you are truly dealing with approaching death. There are still things you can do. Some years ago, I met with a patient's daughter about a month after her mom's death. She told me that, during the last day, her mother had said to her: "Whenever you make chicken soup, add a little lemon juice right before you serve it. It will taste better and you will think of me." I loved this and think of her whenever I make chicken soup.

  And I learned her lesson. A few days ago, I taught my granddaughter how to hull ripe strawberries using a fingernail to pop off the stem. I explained that this only works with very ripe berries, but it prevents any waste of deliciousness. And then I told her: "Whenever you do this, for the rest of your life, remember this afternoon and that your Nana taught you how." When we said good-bye the next morning, she hugged me and whispered: "whenever I do strawberries, for the rest of my life, I will think about you." 

  Susan Gubar has written a particularly excellent essay in The New York Times about helping our children prepare for the loss. Here is the start and a link. Tissues at hand would be a wise move.

Parenting Our Children After We Die


Accounts of the grief children suffer after the deaths of their mothers or fathers reinforced my desire to use the time granted by treatment to help my adult children cope with my demise. We always parent our offspring to survive us, but cancer intensifies the urgency to do so.

I am not a fan of “anticipatory grieving,” the term psychologists use to describe how some people with chronic disease mourn their expected death with their partners and kids. While I am alive, I do not want to subject my daughters to a long sojourn in the stony valley of the shadow. The idea of converting our present into a prelude of my absence distresses me. 

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