How do I tell my 16 year old that I am dying?

7 answers | Last updated: Sep 12, 2012
A fellow caregiver asked...

How do I tell my near 16yr old that I am going to die? I'm a single mom with no family to speak of. We have a friend who will take her, and she likes the friend, but I'm her only family, with exception of a couple elderly aunts on the other coast.

Expert Answers

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

No matter what you say and when you say it, this conversation is likely to be difficult. However, it is a conversation that needs to happen sooner rather than later. Consider first telling your 16 year-old what it is that makes your death imminent. (For example, "I have cancer." or "I have an inoperable tumor." or "I have emphysema.") Allow your 16-year old to integrate this information first. She may immediately jump to the follow-up question, "Does this mean you're going to die?" If the only truthful answer is yes, tell the truth.

If your daughter does not immediately ask if it means you're going to die, you might be more comfortable revealing this in stages. That way, she first absorbs the information that you are seriously ill—and then you have the opportunity to tell her the ultimate consequence. If you've been given an estimate of how much longer you have to live, it's important to share this. Since you have a friend who is willing to take over caring for your daughter, you might want to consider asking the friend to participate in this disclosure. Or, since the friend knows your daughter, ask for the friend's assistance as you prepare for this challenging conversation.

If there is a social worker on the team of professionals caring for you, perhaps he or she could help you plan for this conversation, or be available for a family session to help process the big emotions that could surface for both of you when you do this.

Finally, make sure your wishes for the friend to assume guardianship of your daughter are made explicitly clear via legal documentation, such as naming your preference in your will. A judge will still have to formerly approve the choice as being in your daughter’s best interest, but your written wishes are likely to be honored.

Community Answers

Lindasue answered...

Response from a youth who has been down this road would be benificial I think. Doubtful though that any would be accessing this site. Perhaps, one of you out there is aware of just this situation, in a true setting, might encourage their response.

This is an unimaginable problem for a loving mom. As an older, Aunt, I'd be blessed to have the opportunity to jump in and take on a niece. One never knows ~ just what, is "elderly". . . . Please give this some thought. May God give you strength to muscle through this difficlut time. ln

Francesc answered...

Good suggestions from Martha and Linda. Maybe you have a friend who is on Facebook or one of the other social networking sites that can post a request for help to their online friends. Prayers and hugs to you with this difficult task, and prayers and hugs to your daughter as she goes forward.

Stilldreamin' answered...

You are in my prayers. I hope you find the strength to find the right words because God knows it is not going to be easy. But once you start the conversation and after you both cry together you'll find how easy the words will flow. She'll probably have a lot of questions and be as honest as you can. If you do the facebook thing just make sure you are totally anonymous, that is not how you want your daughter to find out. I don't know your exact situation but I will pray to God that you will be around longer than you think. When I got my news from the doctors, they made me feel like I should wrap things up. I started cleaning house and giving everything away and it's been 15 months and here I am. Never figured on that. I hope the best for you and your daughter. Let her know you'll hang on as long as you can to be with her and that she also needs to be strong to help you along. You might be surprised at how strong she could be. She could turn out to be your rock. Take care and keep in touch, let us know how you are doing, and take comfort in knowing that people really do care. Prayers and hugs.

Rfbrownpe answered...
  1. Truthfully. That is, the truth, fully. Unless your child is clinically unstable, suggesting professional assistance may be warranted, she is old enough to likely appreciate the full truth more than anything else. Love commands it. 'Honest as you can' is inappropriate; be honest.
  2. Promptly. She is most likely to already know something important is being kept from her. The longer you delay, the more likely you are to raise tensions and mistrust; and neither would be beneficial, for either of you.
  3. Privately. Do your daughter the honor and respect of treating her according to her maturity, or even a bit more. She will appreciate it now and for the rest of her life. Others may be well-meaning [or not] but they cannot share the bond between mother and daughter, nor should you dilute it with third parties.
  4. Prepared. As in; pray on it, think on it, feel it. Do your personal work. Know your very deepest purpose in talking with her about this. Then make a few notes to yourself of the key points you want to be sure to cover: Ex: You love her, she is important to you, life is properly ordered. Then, when you are both complete [tears, hugs, eye contact, urgent words] for the time being, ask her what she wants to know -- and when she asks, -- address her questions one by one. When you are both complete answering her questions fully, confirmed by you asking her if her questions are answered fully, then tell her anything else you want her to know -
  5. Knowing that none of us 'know' the future. We only think we might have some idea of what will happen based on our own experience and that of others, and best guesses. Well, you get the idea. You always have the option to hold out hope for any future, even as you use your mature. loving, best judgment to prepare for the most likely outcome you think will occur.

This process does not have to be difficult. It can be easy. The tough part was being honest with yourself about it. It is among the most intimate times for a parent and child to connect with, and an opportunity to accelerate your mother daughter connection for her to carry through the remainder of your time together and the rest of her life. It is a fundamental and essential part of the human condition. Though it is not the life plan you may have hoped for, it is real and it is the path you have been given to walk. Only you can make it difficult, if you decide to have it be that way. There is no rule that it must be so. This is not an unimaginable problem for anyone. The death of a parent is the most common way parents and children face the separation due to death. Most people think about this possibility, though most in our culture do not need to do it at your ages.

Remember, about 95% of all the thoughts we humans have are easily verifiable as 'Don't Know' or profoundly 'False'. As your mind makes up lies about yourself, others and life which constitute the 95%, be sure to regularly verify all your thoughts immediately or as soon as you realize them. That way you and your daughter can live more of your time based on what is verifiable truth and not on lies or notions that you do not know are true. At times of stress, this process is even more important.
Whether you believe in Satan or not, there is a reason he is called the 'Great Deceiver' by the traditions which do believe: he will fill your mind with lies to lead you astray from the truth; with the objective of creating 'hell on earth' for you and those you touch. Only you can disempower those lies by challenging your mind to know what is true for you. You can do it.

Then, remember you have questions of her too. There are things only she knows that may be important for you to know going forward. In the same spirit of loving honesty, tell her you have questions and ask her when you can ask them. Your questions are as important as hers in developing the complete spirit of mutual understanding and trust I will assume you both want. When she says she is ready to answer your questions, ask. Ask them all. This will reinforce your words that you love, honor and respect her. She will recognize you trust her to be honest with you.

Thank you for your intelligent and proactive stance. With Love Bob

Ruth s-professional answered...

Wow! What a blow and you must be reeling with thoughts for yourself, as well as for your daughter. There is so much wonderful, wonderful advice given above. The only thing I can add is this, "Wherever possible, try to leave your daughter a legacy." Either write a journal or better yet, put together a video to her with words of wisdom for her to reflect upon in the future, as well as your deep love for her. Having your voice and your face to look back on in her future milestones in life will offer her tremendous comfort and inspiration. Focus on the positive, constructive ways in which she can keep you in her heart. Take a look at this video and see what a marvelous imprint you can leave on her future and that of many others. Many hugs for your brave consideration of your daughter in your own deep time of need and challenges.

Brienda answered...

I was told about a book that dealt with this exact issue. It is titled "Living with the End in Mind" by Erin Kramp. I will be honest and let you know that I have not read it but have heard it is amazing.