This week has been a weird and difficult one for my family. My brother Tom, 41, works for me four days a week and called me on Thursday (his day off) to ask what a heart attack feels like. Yikes. Not a question you want to be asked as a sister or a pediatrician. After having him high tail it to my office we found his blood pressure was sky high (but at least his EKG was normal) and I sent him to the ER for evaluation. He’s been in the hospital ever since. At first we thought he would be coming home Friday, then his tests weren’t so good. Then he was supposed to go home Saturday but when his cardiologist looked at the test results he kept him in the hospital until Monday to undergo a cardiac cath and a stent placement. Risky….
My kids love my brother Tom and like most other parents faced with a seriously ill relative, I wasn’t sure how much to tell them. I wasn’t sure if I should be vague or specific, honest or reassuring. I went with my gut and decided to tell the kids the whole truth. My kids are 9, 11, and 13 and so I told them that Uncle Tom had had something like a heart attack and that he would be staying in the hospital for several days for rest, testing and ultimately a procedure to fix his heart. The flood of questions began. Everything from ‘Will he live?’ (I hope so but I can’t be sure) to ‘Is he really lonely in the hospital?’ (Yes but he has us and his friends to visit and keep him company) to ‘Did this happen because he’s fat?’ (Yes in part, but Papa Vic also had a heart attack at a really young age and he wasn’t fat) to ‘Why do you have to spend so much time at the hospital when it is your only time away from work?’ (Because I love Tom. He’s my brother and we need each other. You kids need me too but right now Tom needs me more.) Each day as we got worse news, I would update the kids and tell them honestly what this all meant. We have been going together to the hospital to see him and they are amazed at how good he actually looks. We have been organizing our daily life around my visits and need to be with him and although it has been stressful for all of us, I believe this honesty has been a good thing for my kids.
At what age then do you share all this info? How old should a child be to visit at the hospital? How much of your own fear or sadness should you allow your kids to see? To what extent should they see the logistical challenges a sick relative presents? These are all tough questions. It is often difficult enough for adults to acknowledge our own feelings of fear or worry but to then share these feelings with our children can be that much more daunting. I encourage you to. I encourage parents to share their real feelings with their children all the time. Of course the purpose of sharing your fears or sad feelings is not to have your child feel any sense of responsibility for making you feel better, but rather for him to see that intense feelings are ok, that they can be shared and by sharing them you begin to feel more yourself again. You would never want to lean on your child emotionally but rather talk to them, using age appropriate language, about what’s going on and how you feel about it.
For kids under 5, sharing very intense feelings can be scary for the child but it is still important. You may not want to sob in front of your children, but telling even young children that their relative is very sick and needs special care is important. You can tell them that you are sad that the person is sick and feel like you wish there is more that you could do to help them. You can tell them you are a little worried but that he is in good hands with a team of doctors to figure out what has gone wrong and what can be done about it. Asking young children about what they may want to do is often heartening for parents. Kids aren’t bound by the same emotional restrictions we are and as such often will come up with wonderful ideas to brighten a sick person’s day or help those around that person feel better. Encourage your kids to follow through on their ideas to help others and who knows, you might feel a bit better yourself!
Kids under 5 may be intimidated by the hospital setting but if it is a close relative or friend that is sick, I would still encourage you to make a visit with your child. Try to time it when no tests are scheduled and keep the visit short. Talk your child through what you are seeing (the nurses and machines and IVs and other sick people) so they know it is ok to talk about all of that. Let the child decide how much contact, verbal or physical, she wants with the ill person and don’t force them to give the person a hug, for example. As you leave, emphasize how different a hospital is from a regular bedroom but that it is rest that the person needs. Encourage your child to talk and ask questions and answer them all as completely and honestly as you can. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, kids usually have a much better sense of reality than we think and if you downplay everything when they can tell more is going on, they may not trust that you will tell them like it is later either.
It is never easy to have a sick relative but being open, honest, and emotionally available to your kids will make the process easier for all of you and set the groundwork for talking about all feelings, good or bad.