Family Life

What Do I Tell My Children?

I haven’t shared this publicly until now, out of respect for my family’s privacy. But now that we know the worst, I needed to write something about why this Christmas doesn’t feel like much of a Christmas. So, with my mother-in-law’s permission, here’s what’s going on.

About two and a half months ago, we first heard that my father-in-law wasn’t feeling well. He went to the emergency room four weeks ago when he kept losing weight, and that’s when we got the news. Stage 4 colorectal cancer, metastasized to his liver, lungs, lymph nodes, and even into a rib bone. He was able to go home after a couple of weeks, but he ended up being readmitted to the hospital earlier this week with incipient pneumonia on top of all that. He’ll be there over Christmas.

He started palliative radiation therapy on Thursday, in an attempt to shrink his tumour to make him more comfortable. It’s shocking to me how this man who was so vital and vigorous only a few short months ago probably won’t see Keira’s second birthday. It breaks my heart knowing that she won’t have any memories of him, and it’s unlikely Teagan will remember much about him either.

Until now, we’ve only told Teagan that Papa is sick. Every day or two she asks us, “Why is Papa sick?” I have no answer for her other than to say, “Sometimes people just get sick.” And then she’ll ask when he’s going to get better. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this. I don’t want to lie to her or build up false hope, but I also don’t want to give her more than she’s equipped to deal with. I have tried to gently prepare her by letting her know that sometimes people don’t get better. She’s only three, but the reality is that she will have to deal with her grandfather’s death sooner than later.

Yesterday was Teagan’s holiday concert, and afterward she asked us, “Why wasn’t Papa at my concert?” Hubs told her that Papa was very sick and in the hospital. Teagan asked to go see him so she could give him a big hug. She hasn’t seen him since before his diagnosis, and we’ve been struggling to find a good time for her to see him before it’s too late. We were hoping he’d rally a bit with treatment and put on some weight after the initial diagnosis, but his physical condition has continued to deteriorate instead. We’ve decided to bring her to see him this weekend, but he looks so sick, I’m afraid that she’ll be scared when she sees him. I’m worried she’ll refuse to hug or talk to him.

I worry about my husband too. He’s trying so hard to be strong for his daughters and for his mother, and I worry he’s postponing his own grief to deal with everything else. I worry about my mother-in-law who’s been trying to take care of her husband single-handedly and running herself into the ground.

And of course, it’s the Christmas season. People to visit, decorations to put up, crafts to make, presents to buy and wrap, carols to sing, lights to see… And really, none of the adults feel like doing any of it. If we didn’t have the girls, I don’t think there would be much of a Christmas this year. But for them we’re trying to keep things as normal as possible. Is that a good thing? I hope so. I know it’s only getting to get harder.

I need to be really present with my children and focus on spending time with my family over the holidays, so I’ll be taking some time off from the blog until the new year. In the meantime, I want to wish each and every one of you a wonderful holiday season filled with love and friendship and family.

And please, get screened if you’re over 50 (or younger if you’re high risk). Colorectal cancer is very treatable if detected early.

Happy Holidays from This West Coast Mommy

Leave a Comment


  • Oliva, I am touched by your post. I wouldn’t know what to tell my kids either. I guess the best thing you can do is prep your kids for how Grandpa will look and not to be scared, that it happens sometimes. I would say the best thing you can give to Grandpa this season is your love and hugs. I hope things go well during your visit and thank you for sharing.

  • My heart is with you. Last year we dealt with my husband having a very acute form of leukemia. Cancer can hit so hard and fast and so unsuspecting. My prayers are with your family. We have always as you have been with your daughter as honest as possible and kept things like this very simple. You are communicating very well with your little one. What helped us get through the tough times was finding something every day to be thankful for. This helped us focus on what was good, and positive in such dark and hard times. Again, my heart is with you.

  • It is such a hard thing to try to explain to little ones. My niece was 2 and my nephew 4 when my mom entered Palliative care at the end of her fight against cancer. We just kept taking them to see her. Explained that she was sick. But she needed our smiles and hugs. Dont think there are any magic words. We bought recordable storybooks for the kids and had my mom read a couple of the pages. Now they have her pictures and they can still here her voice tell them she loves them. An idea to consider. Wishing you strength throughout this difficult time!

  • I will be praying for your family as you walk through this difficult time!
    Kids are very resilient and often do better with dealing with sickness than adults do! My daughter (now 5) was pretty close with her great-grandpa (he passed just after Christmas last year after years of sickness). We told her what was going on with him and how she could still be there for him. She liked knowing she could do something for him (push his wheel chair, bring him his tea, make him pictures, tell him stories). When kids have a part in it I think it is easier for them to deal with it. I hope this is encouraging for you!

  • My thoughts go out to you and your family. Both my father and my father-in-law have gone through colon cancer recently. We are fortunate they are both well now. So your reminder of the screening is very important. I think it’s amazing that you are trying to keep Christmas as normal as possible. And I am sure it is the very best thing for your girls. My best to you.

    • As we’ve been learning about colorectal cancer, it amazes me how common it really is. Luckily, screening can be very helpful if done regularly. I don’t know how normal our Christmas is this year, but we’re certainly trying. Thanks, Joann.

  • My prayers go out to you and your family. I can not give any advice but I can say to trust in the Lord. He will guide you on what to do.

  • I’m just throwing a thought out to you, don’t know if it’s a good one or not. Maybe take a picture of papa to show her what to expect when she goes to visit. I’m just thinking this way the initial shock will be at home and not in front of her grandpa, and you can do all the explaining at home, not at the hospital where it can be scary. God bless.

    • Thank you for the suggestion. She actually went Saturday afternoon with my husband who verbally prepared her that Papa would look very different. She didn’t seem fazed at all, just gave him a big hug when she saw him. Thankfully 3 year olds are remarkably resilient.

  • Olivia, I’m so sorry to hear of your sad news. After 10 years of working Long Term Care as well as with my own personal experience with family illness, I’ll share the thoughts that come to mind right now. I think you have explained well your FIL’s illness to your girls. Try to have your girls visit him as often as possible. He will enjoy the visit, and it is important for people who are palliative to have their loved ones around them. As well, if he does take a turn for the worse the guilt of not bringing the girls to visit will be difficult to deal with. If you or someone you know has the Christmas concert recorded you may want to bring it with your on your visit, your dtr would love to show it, and it also gives you something to talk about, as sometimes visits can be difficult to know what to say. Hugs for you and your family.

  • Hi Olivia,

    I am so sorry to hear! Such hard news to have over the holidays! There’s a book I could recommend, if I may. It’s called When A Parent Is Sick. It has language for different age leaves. I wsh I was at work to send you some pages!!

  • Olivia it’s amazing how strong kids are and how caring they are towards their sick grandparent. My son was 4 when my mom died from cervical cancer and it was difficult on him. He was very close with my mom and I took him to spend time with my mom whenever I could. For mom’s last Christmas I hosted all the family at my house and made sure to spend as much time with her as I could. I took lots of pictures of mom and my kids and enjoyed the time we had. Although I have to say that my son took my mom’s death very hard. I choose to be honest with and say gram died and went to heaven where she wasn’t in pain anymore. Good luck and I wish you a merry Christmas!

    • I think this will be our last Xmas with him, and the fact that he’ll be in the hospital over the holidays is hard on all of us. We definitely want to spend as much time with him as he can handle. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Hi Olivia,

    First let me say how sorry I am for your family having to go through this. Second, let me say ‘been there, done that.’ My dad passed from bone cancer – this is our 2nd Christmas without him. Although my children are older, my grandchildren had to learn first hand about a family member leaving. Although it wasn’t Christmas, it was still hard.

    I know your family is going through but you can all gain strength from each other. God bless you and your family during this time.


  • Olivia: I am so sorry for what you are going through right now. Last year on Dec. 23rd we lost my father. He was in the hospital for 5 days before he passed away. He was on the amends and we had planned to bring the kids. Up until that point, he was not himself and was very ill. My husband and I had made the decision to keep the kids home (they are older) because they last time that they had been with my dad he was happy, singing and full of life. That is how I wanted my children to remember my father. Not so sick in the hospital.

    These are all personal decisions, there are no right or wrong answers, you just have to do what is best for your family.

    I send you hugs and prayers for peace to him and your family.

    • Thank you, Margarita. We took our girls to visit him on Boxing Day, and that will be the last time. My father-in-law got to say goodbye, but I think anything more would be unnecessarily traumatic for them. I appreciate your kind words.