By Diana Sloan
When you have incurable cancer and children, the talk about death is inevitable. But, man, do you really try to avoid it. Not because we shouldn’t talk about death with our kids, but because it is a specific discussion about your death. And like any parent, you want to protect your child from all the pain in the world. Especially this pain.
So when my eight year old daughter snuggled up beside me on the couch this weekend, I knew that this was going to be a serious talk. She looked at me with big, brown eyes that are way to knowing for her age and told me she was worried and scared. I asked her why, even though I knew in my heart where this was going. I have always tried to let my children communicate about cancer in their own time and way, so I waited for her to tell me. She replied that she didn’t want me to die. My immediate thought was, “Oh honey. Neither do I.”
So there it was, and trust me when I say there is no guidebook for this. Of course I’ve thought about what I would say in this situation from time to time; but, when your baby is crying because she is contemplating life without you, all that previous preparation flies right out of your head. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing because it allowed me to lead with my heart instead.
First of all, I told her I was scared and worried too because, let’s face it, I am. Sometimes I think we try too hard to be strong for all of our loved ones and shield them from the struggles and anxiety we feel. It is exhausting, but I didn’t take into account that my eight year old was doing the same thing for me. After I told her I shared her fears, I asked her how often she feels this way. She told me all the time. Even though I have checked in and made sure to have open, honest talks with my kids about my health regularly, she kept this from me. My brave girl was silently carrying around this weight on her heart to protect me.
Next we moved into the realm of everyone dies, but as we all know that does not provide any comfort. So what? That doesn’t make anything about death of parent okay for a child. She wants me here with her always! She told me she didn’t want to not be able to see me or have me with her while she grows up. This is where the tears started flowing. It became so difficult because I was asking my baby to have faith in something she cannot see. I’m not talking about religion in this case even though that gives me comfort. I am talking about love.
I told her that I will never be completely gone because, as cliché as it sounds, love never dies. She came from me, and I will live on in her and through her. When she tells a story about me or remembers something fun we did, I will live on. When she has those big moments that she wishes I was there for, I will be there in her heart and mind because love goes on and on. Even when we cannot.
I then reminded her to not let my death keep her from living. Pretty heavy for an eight year old, but I feel so strongly about this. I told her that the most important thing she can do is make life the most incredible experience possible because I would never want my absence to rob her of that. I told her to be sad, be angry, but never use my death as an excuse for letting her life pass her by. Dream big, love hard, and most importantly find the happiness and joy that this beautiful adventure gives us.
As I hugged my baby girl, I closed the conversation by making her a couple promises. First, I promised her I was not in immediate danger of dying because it is the truth. Then, I made the promise that no parent wants to make to their child. I promised her I would tell her when it was evident that I would be dying soon. We wiped our tears, and the talk I never wanted to have was done.
Little did I know, I needed this conversation every bit as much as my daughter. I needed to say these things; and, most importantly, I needed to know that they were true. So when my beautiful Brie smiles into the mirror years from now seeing her eyes sparkle as they crinkle in the corners and her cheeks rising up just like her mama’s, she will know I am there with her. And so will I.
Diana Sloan, a 2018 On The Rise featured survivor, is a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor and mother of 3 girls. She's currently making memories in Texas with her husband and daughters while receiving treatment at MD Anderson.