How I Talked To My Kids About My Divorce And Breast Cancer Diagnosis
BY LEISSE WILCOX
Photo © Mladen Zivkovic/Getty Images
Jun 17, 2019
I went through both a divorce and breast cancer diagnosis with three young children at my side. I learned that communication with my kids during times of difficulty or stress is key.
They simply need to be part of the conversation that acknowledges that life is a little bit different right now.
Even young kids need to know enough about what's going on in times of crisis. Whether we’re aware of it or not, they unconsciously pick up on, feed off of and are shaped by our emotions and attitudes. Helping them understand what exactly is going on is truly beneficial to their own emotional processing.
Our kids need to feel emotionally safe during these same challenges. While they need to know that change is happening, they only need to know what affects their own lives, little bit by little bit, in an age-appropriate way and in the context of how it impacts them.
They don’t need to know, understand or have access to complicated themes and complex adult emotions. They simply need to be part of the conversation that acknowledges that life is a little bit different right now.
Telling my kids that their dad and I were splitting up was a series of conversations that we had together. No matter what the details of the conversation were, I always started with this: “We are a family, and your dad and I love you very much. We are not going to be married anymore, and that is called divorce.”
That evolved into, “if you need mummy in the middle of the night I’ll be in this room, and if you need daddy he’ll be in that room” and eventually, “sometimes you’ll spend time with mummy in this house, and sometimes you’ll spend time with daddy in that house.” Anytime new information was available — like when we decided to sell our family home and I was ready to look for a new place for the four of us — I went back to the basics of the context again. “Remember we were talking about our family and how much we love you? And that our lives are changing a little because of divorce? Well, now it’s time for us to go on the adventure of finding a new home — just like the little hermit crab in the book, remember?"
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When I received the shocking news of a breast cancer diagnosis at age 37, I took a very deep breath and followed the same pattern of teeny tiny pieces of information, doled out when we were all ready to give or receive them. That conversation started with “I have some tenderness in my breast right there, so when we’re cuddling, I need you to be extra gentle with me, my loves.” Then, “remember that tender spot I had on my breast? Great news! My doctor is going to remove it with something called surgery. Our aunties are coming to stay for a couple of days while my body heals from that surgery, so that we can cuddle and read on the couch together while they make dinner and make sure we all have what we need.”
I gave them the information they needed to know as they needed to know it and included them in whatever way it made sense to do so.
The hardest part was when we arrived at the chemo conversation. Even that conversation, truthfully, was still quite smooth. “Do you remember when mummy had surgery? To remove that tender spot? Well that tender spot was something called cancer. It’s all gone, and I’m healthy and well, and now my doctors are giving me a special medicine called chemotherapy. The amazing thing about that medicine is that it helps cancer stay away. The not so great thing about that medicine is that it makes my hair fall out. Can you imagine? Mummy is going to be bald! What will that be like, I wonder…maybe a little chilly?”
Each new detail I shared with my kids was straightforward and lighthearted. I gave them the information they needed to know as they needed to know it and included them in whatever way it made sense to do so. When I had narrowed down a few places that were real contenders for us to live in, I brought them with me on the next visit and genuinely listened to how they felt about each place. When I knew chemo was a reality, we invited a small group of close friends and family to a head-shaving party at our place. Then I knew I had support and they had support (and all kinds of snacks) to make this a really happy memory, instead of feeling like it was a terrifying elephant in the room.
I was also open with each of their teachers. I wanted to ensure that, while our family privacy was respected, the adults with whom my kids spent six hours a day were aware of the changes at home. This made me feel like my kids were also getting even more love from the people in their village, and that they would have even more support in their daily lives, while stripping away any remnants of shame I had felt by keeping this information to myself.
If my children asked me about how I was feeling, I was very honest about it, without drama or fear mongering. “You know, I do feel sad, but I know this is the right thing for our family and I am excited for all the adventures coming our way.” “Yes, I am a little scared about losing my hair — it’s always been so long! Do you think this hat might look nice while we all get used to this big change?”
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In breaking down and simplifying these two life-altering experiences, and making them "palatable" for my young daughters (now six, six and eight), a really interesting thing happened — I was so focused on protecting and preserving the emotional health and well-being of my children, that I inadvertently protected and preserved my own emotional health and well-being along the way. Who wouldn’t want to live this next adventure like the little hermit crab? Who could resist popcorn with white chocolate and sprinkles while I got a brand new haircut? In what could have been, and what for so many people what are devastating experiences, I managed to capture a real innocence for all four of us, and found that both processes became so much easier for me to understand along the way.
Sometimes life doesn’t go quite as you planned at the time that you planned it, and it’s important for us to know how to roll with those punches. That’s a fundamental quality of the human spirit to be resilient. Learning how to cultivate that resiliency for myself, and share that with my three daughters, is one of the best gifts I think I can give them. And I know you can do it, too. You just have to take that big breath and find the courage within yourself to do so.
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