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When It Comes to a Parent’s Serious Illness, Kids Need to Know


Last summer, 14-year-old Emily Gilmore earned the Girl Scout Silver Award.  Although she already had a sash and vest covered with badges, this one was special — it’s the highest honor a Cadette can receive.

To reach her goal, Emily had to oversee and complete a major project, one that had meaning in her life and also had a positive impact on others. She decided to make gift baskets for patients in Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She wanted to give back to the place that had successfully treated her mom for breast cancer two years earlier.

What Emily didn’t expect when she set out to achieve her goal, was that the project would also allow her to find the closure she needed to come to grips with her mother’s illness.

Emily was only 11 and heading into seventh grade when her mom, Charmian Leslie-Hughes, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although Emily was clearly shaken when her mom told her and her two siblings the news, Charmian didn’t realize its full impact until she had completed her treatment two years later. “I was packing away her school supplies from seventh grade and read some entries in school journals she kept that year,” she said. “She was so worried, but never said anything to me. When I read this, I realized the full the magnitude of what she had quietly endured.”

Emily’s choice to “quietly endure” is not unusual, said Jenny Swanson, MMT, MT-BC, child bereavement coordinator. “Kids don’t want to make their mom more sad by talking about their feelings,” she said. “No matter how much a parent says ‘talk to me,’ if children feel it will hurt, they’ll hold back.”

Not that there weren’t any indications of what Emily was going through. “When I was first losing my hair, she didn’t say anything but I saw her watching it come out. She had never been a destructive child but that day I heard her throwing things around in her room.” It took Charmian hours to calm Emily down. She told Charmian that when she wore a wig, she didn’t look like mom. As it turned out, all her kids felt that way. It wasn’t until her own hair was growing back and reached chin level that they told her “now you look like our mom.”

The most important consideration in helping children cope with an illness, Swanson said, is to “keep them in the loop, especially if they’re at an age when they’ll know something is being held back.

“It does more harm trying to shield them,” agreed Diondra Brown, MSW, coordinator in the Early Childhood Program at Pennsylvania Hospital. “It leaves them to imagine the worst.” According to an American Family Physican article, “children who are not prepared and who do not receive the kind of support and understanding they need can be permanently scarred by a parent's medical crisis, even if the parent survives and returns to full health.”

It’s important to talk to children in a developmentally appropriate manner, one that they can easily understand. Brown is a proponent of naming the illness. “With young children, being ‘sick’ is having a cold. If you tell a 7-year-old that ‘mommy is sick,’ the next time they hear someone is ‘sick,’ they’ll think it’s the same thing their mother had.” And it’s important that they hear the information from people they trust and feel comfortable with. When Charmian told her children, their grandmother and a favorite aunt sat by her side. “Kids take cues from what they see. If adults don’t talk, then they won’t.”

It’s also about leaving the door of communication open, Brown said. “Be as honest as possible but realize that just because you’re ready to talk, they may not be,” she said. Also, children learn from observing. Charmian tried to keep to as normal a routine as possible but “they could see chemo was rough on me.” And where they were used to seeing her with long hair, she was often wearing a hat during treatment, not only to hide her baldness but because she was always so cold. When they went to visit their dad and left Charmian alone, “they were petrified, but would leave me notes like ‘I love you’ and ‘you’re going to get through this.’”

When Emily presented her finished project — which included blankets and other carefully thought-out gifts — to members of the ACC’s Patient and Family Services, “she was on cloud nine,” Charmian said.

The project did indeed help Emily heal. “It’s put her in a good place, where she was before,” Charmian said. And, Charmian said it made her want to give back even more, helping younger scouts at Girl Scout events and at home. “She still looks after me, helping out around the house and giving me hugs.”

Although Emily is by nature more of an introvert, she wanted her story told, Charmian said. “She said that if her story is able to help anyone, she’ll be very happy about it. I’m so proud of her.”

Read more about Emily's journey in the March edition of HUPdate

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