How To Talk To Your Kids About a Sick Loved One

A friend recently told me that I was part of “The Sandwich Generation” — a generation of women in their 30s and 40s who are “sandwiched” between taking care of their aging parents while also caring for their own children. My father is ill. Seriously ill. He had a mini-stroke two weeks ago and over the last week has been in and out of the hospital, has had seriously blood-thinning problems, has had failing kidneys, and memory issues. We are worried about him; we are worried about his heart, his mind.

When I was much younger, before I was a mother, I found out that my dad had a heart attack when I was told about his second heart attack. My family had shielded my brother and my sister and me from the scary news, kept us from feeling the stress and worry. I was upset that I was left out and wasn’t told. (“He’s my father, you have to tell me!” I remember screaming to anyone who would listen.) I lost some trust in my family members and I felt unnecessary isolated.


But now that I am a parent, I understand.

Your first instinct as a parent is to protect your children. It breaks my heart when my kids worry about anything. I would give anything to not ever see that look of complete and total hurt on my daughters’ and my son’s face when something truly upsets them.

So, I get it.

But, if there’s one thing I know about children it’s that they are smart. They see, hear, notice, and internalize everything. Children are aware when you are speaking in hushed tones, they can see the look of worry on your face. When routines change and you are making flight arrangements for a 24-hour trip to Atlanta, they know.

It was important for me to tell my kids that my dad — their Grandpa — is sick. When I asked my friends how to tell them, they offered advice and, in the end, told me to trust my gut. 

So today, after speaking with my kids, I offer these four pieces of advice on how to talk to your kids about a loved one who is sick. 

Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert on this. I’m not a psychologist or a paediatrician or a psychiatrist. I’m just a mom who has a sick dad and smart kids. I’m just a mom who is worried about her dad’s health, and who remembers that feeling of not being told about his first heart attack.

1. Tell them enough, but don’t tell them too much. It’s not important that they know specific medical jargon, and it’s certainly not important for them to know what medication he is taking and that he got up from the breakfast table to give himself a blood-thinning injection. They don’t need to know what a TIA is and that his memory issues are keeping him from being able to work, and that he’s not sleeping at all at night. I said to my kids, “Grandpa is in the hospital. It’s pretty serious. He is weak and foggy, but he’s actually not in a lot of pain, which is a good thing. He is so lucky that he’s in a great hospital and he has lots of good doctors who are doing everything they can to make him better.”

2. Ask them if they have any questions, and make sure to answer them. I stopped the conversation a few times to look my children in the eyes and ask them if they understood what I was saying and if there was anything they wanted to ask me. They had a lot of questions about when they’d get to see him and how long he would be in the hospital.

Remember: It’s okay to say that you don’t know. “I don’t know when he will get to come home from the hospital. The truth is, the hospital is a very good place for him to be — if something goes wrong, there are doctors and nurses right at his bedside.”

3. Talk about What is, and try to avoid the What ifsI am a worrier by nature and really struggle with the what ifs. My brain jumps three steps into the future, and I can’t help but imagine worst-case scenarios. The information they are getting will already be a lot for them to process, so I really wanted to try to avoid this with my kids.

4. Change their focus. We are working on a big “Get well soon” art project. My youngest daughter went through our recycling bins and we gathered paints and glitter and glue and mod podge to focus our energy on something to send to my dad. It helps them feel involved, and I just know that my dad will love it.

And of course, above all else, trust your gut. 

Hey, maybe that’s why it’s called The Sandwich Generation. 

Any tips to add to mine?