My first MRI was on a Friday, leading to a biopsy the following Monday– so that weekend was a mess. We had close to no information other than something really scary was happening. When you don’t have answers, or any guiding information it is easy to jump to conclusions, worry about worst case scenario– which in this particular instance was… not good.
As a pediatrician I take care of lots of sick children, some are medically complex with life- limiting diseases. I have seen parents try to shield their children from truths that are unfolding around them– but the kids always know. Whether the child is my patient, or my patient’s sibling– kids pick up on so much that goes unsaid, and are listening to every word that is– even if the kids are playing or looking otherwise distracted, they are paying attention. When parents try to shield their kids, it ends up just making the situation harder to talk about– harder to have open and honest conversations, can lead to the kids worrying, internalizing, and acting out. So I knew we had to tell the kids.
My husband did a lot of googling about how to tell the kids. Some articles were more helpful than others- but one of the themes he saw repeated was that kids will often blame themselves for parents getting sick, or other bad things that happen. So, one of the main things we needed to hammer home was that me getting sick was no one’s fault. We decided to tell them on Sunday, the day before my surgery. We felt that telling them separately would be better given their age differences (7 and 4 years old)– they have very different needs at these ages in terms of information, processing, questions etc… so that was our plan.
Luckily, our 7 year old woke up in the middle of the night on Sunday to use the bathroom– something that hardly ever happens. Of course my husband and I were not sleeping… so we took the opportunity to spill the beans.
We invited our 7 year old into our room and told him we had something we needed to tell him. We explained that I was having some funny feelings in my arm so went to the doctor and ran some tests, and that I was found to have something, called a tumor, growing in my head that shouldn’t be there. I explained in a little more detail about tumors, and then asked him if he had any questions so far. He was quiet a moment, then said, “Well, what are you going to do about that?!” Yes, my boy– what are we going to do? Lots. LOTS.
We told him that I was going to have surgery the next day, would be in the hospital for a day, and see more doctors to help get the tumor out. We told him this was no one’s fault- not his, not mine, not anyone’s, and tried to hammer that point home. We also told him we were scared– my husband and I were both tearful as we were talking– letting our sadness show– and told Sacha that this was something serious, sometimes people die from tumors, but that I was going to try everything I possibly could to get better. But that I probably would be getting sicker before I got better and that alone was scary. We told him that he might have questions that came up or thoughts or concerns or whatever- and that he was ALWAYS welcome to talk to us about what was happening. He understood. We gave hugs. He fell back to sleep while my husband and I waited for the sun.
Our 4 year old woke up at his usual time, and padded into our room half asleep. We told his older brother to give us some time to tell him what was happening too, so our 7 year old went to read a book in his room. Telling our 4 year old was so much harder for me. We explained in more simplistic terms what was going on, but it was hard to tell if he was understanding… he certainly liked the individual conversation he was having with his mommy and daddy, but he was smiling and giggling through the whole thing. He saw the tears marching down my cheeks and went and brought me a napkin to wipe them away, the one sign that showed me he was understanding.
Over the course of the day, and honestly since that time over the last 3 months, we’ve been getting and giving way more hugs than we used to. We talk about my tumor all the time. They know. They ask. They worry some, but we check in and talk about it all together. This will be a recurring conversation, and whatever happens we are all here in it together.