Rantoul Press columnist

While I am a native of Detroit, as a licensed clinical social worker I have spent the last 20 years in Champaign County advocating for social justice and helping those in need.

I have had the honor of working with many individuals and families in crisis and have been continually amazed to see how the community rallies to support its members.

I embrace this column as an opportunity to serve and give back to the community, not as a social worker but as a neighbor and friend.

Here is a question that was posed to me:

I am writing today because we just found out that my father is terminally ill with cancer. My son, who is 6, is very close to him, and I just don’t know what to say to him.

Should we say anything to him? What should we say? How do we say it?

First, I would like to say how sorry I am that your family has received this news. While this next part of your journey will be a sad one, you and your son also can build memories and begin the healing process.  

I absolutely believe that you need to start a conversation now with your son and give him a chance to ask questions and explore his feelings. Chances are that he already senses that something is wrong and is waiting for someone to talk to him.

When speaking to your son, use clear, concrete words; avoiding euphemisms at all cost. I have seen well-meaning adults tell children that a family member was so good that God called them to heaven to be with him.

I guarantee you will have a child with some behavior issues whose goal is to avoid being good. Start out by giving your son simple, information such as "Grandpa has cancer, and the doctors think he will die before summer."

You are not telling the child Grandpa is sick, which could raise fear anytime someone is ill, and you are giving him a time line that makes sense in his world. Small children don’t understand six months, but they compute a seasonal time line. Children also have a different way of processing information.

While you may have tissues on standby, it is also likely your son will take the information and go play while processing what he has learned. If you leave the door open, he will then come back to you with additional questions.

You need to make it OK for your son to approach you and ask questions as often as he needs to. If you give off any type of "I am too upset to talk about it" vibe, he will stop asking you and may end up speaking to someone else who does not know how to address his needs.  

If your family has a strong faith, it is good to model how your faith is a support. Again, I caution saying things or allowing others to offer platitudes that will only scare your son. Don’t forget to utilize other resources for you and your child as well.

Contact teachers and social workers at school to provide support when you are not around. You can speak to your pediatrician and see if play therapy/counseling is appropriate. Also, don’t forget your local library should have books and resources available to explain death at an age appropriate level.

Lastly, if your son wants to see your father, allow them to spend as much time together as possible. Even if your dad becomes nonverbal at some point, your son can still talk to him about his day.

Never force him to visit or forbid him to visit. Just always be honest about how Grandpa looks and what is being done to care for him. Remember that even for adults, what we often imagine is far worse than the truth.  

I wish you and your family well.  

This column is not intended to provide counseling/legal advice. Before you undertake any action, you should consult your own social worker/counselor. In the event of a mental health emergency, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Sherrie Faulkner is a member and supporter of the Rantoul community. She writes a weekly column. If you have a question that you think will help others, you may send it for consideration to