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How do I help my children understand chronic illness and death?

Q: One of our children has a chronic illness. Taking care of her is all-consuming. How do I make my other children understand?

A: A family is a system; changes in one part of the system mean that other family members must readjust. As an adult, you understand the implications of a chronic illness, but children have difficulty understanding due to their cognitive developmental levels. Personality comes into play, too. After all, even spouses prioritize in different ways when coping with illness.

First, network with parents of other chronically ill children in your community. If you can, find a group through your parish – the faith component is an important part of support. Since reliable child care often is an issue, see if you can gather information about reliable respite care or exchange child care. Second, seek local or Web groups specific to your child’s illness. Third, explain your family’s psychosocial needs, as well as the physical needs of your child, to your health-care providers; these need to be considered in long-term health plans. By finding respite care and greater social support, you should be able to schedule more activities with your other children.

Q: My husband’s mother died recently. She was the ideal grandma, and my kids are really grieving. How can I best help them through this difficult time?

A: The ages of your children will have an impact on the way they grieve. Young children may wonder exactly “where” Grandma is. It can be confusing to “visit” Grandma at the cemetery and to know that she is now in heaven with Jesus. They may not realize that heaven isn’t a place we can go to visit and Grandma can’t contact them. Instead of one long conversation, effective answers often are short, clear explanations that follow casual comments. Making a memory book about Grandma can elicit comments and serve as a wonderful memento throughout the years. School events, such as Grandparents’ Day, can be challenging and your children can have the option of sharing their “Grandma Book.” If your children aren’t spontaneously expressing their grief, then libraries and bookstores have children’s books focusing on the death of a grandparent. Preview them to make sure that the theme fits your child’s developmental level and Catholic theology.