How to Tell Your Kids You Need Surgery

Take Charge on 03.16.12
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Photo: Rene Syler

I'm on my way to one of my favorite places in the world, Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, for a quick check-up. I know that sounds curious given that it's one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the world, but that's exactly why I love it so. I've been going there for years and that is where I had my preventive mastectomy, five years ago.

It seems like so long ago when I opted to have that procedure done. There was a lot of stuff swirling around at the time; I had just been fired from my job and wasn't really sure which end was up. Couple with the fact that I had two young children for whom I had to keep it together. You know the feeling right?

So with all of this on my mind, I had to figure out the best way to talk to my kids about this life-altering surgery; to keep them calm and me too. I did a bit of reading on how to talk to your kids, but can I be honest? Those books didn't know my kids; I did. Here's what I did and I think it could help you too if you're ever in this situation.

Tell the truth. My kids were 8 and 10 years old at the time. Any parent knows kids, even little ones, are pretty astute, able to discern when things aren't quite right. So I sat Casey and Cole down one day and, in a quiet moment, told them what I was going to do. I told them I was having surgery and that I was going to be gone for a few days. I made sure they knew they were going to be okay, as dad and the babysitter would care for them in my absence. Then I told them more details about the surgery, why I was having it done, more about my family history and that I'd be good as new soon.

Let them ask questions. I've never been big on trying to hide things from my kids, even the stuff that's hard to take. As I said before, kids, not just mine, are pretty good at figuring it all out. So when I when I finished the big, "nuts and bolts" talk, I asked them if they had any questions. Yep, they sure did. But interestingly enough they were not the questions I had anticipated. For example, Cole asked me if I could die. I told him that there was risk involved, as in any surgery, but that I was in very good hands. I spent the next several minutes telling him about my doctor and how many of these surgeries he had done. When I was finished he said to me, "No mom, I mean can you die from having plastic boobs?" Ha! I told him no and then let him ask whatever else was on his third grade mind. That reassured him and let him know I had nothing to hide.

Let them participate in the healing. When I came home from the hospital I was in pretty bad shape. I looked terrible; I guess a five-hour surgery will do that to a person. So I let them do whatever they could for me. They brought my meals and things to drink, fluffed pillows, lay in bed with me, combed my hair, and helped me to the bathroom. I also let them help me change my bandages and drains; let me tell you, that took a strong stomach. But my son really took great pride in doing it; in showing he was tough enough to take the sight of it and to take care of me.

Obviously this won't work for all kids and you have to make sure the information you are giving them is age appropriate. But by being open with them it demystified a scary situation and gave my children the faith that I was going to do what I said I was. That I was going to be okay. And I am!

Have you ever had to talk to you kids about serious illness? How did you do it?

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