Telling The Truth About Death

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The death of a parent is devastating at any age. How do you prepare an adolescent? Also, as your children grow, you may have the sense that you are being shut out of their lives, especially if you are divorced and the other parent has custody. The Saturday Early Show's Mike Riera has some ideas on how to keep the lines of communication open.
Should They Tell Her That Mom Is Dying?

Dear Mike,

My sister is terminally ill. She has a soon-to-be 12-year-old daughter and has spoken with her about the illness. However, she has never told this child what her illness really is and that she is, indeed, dying. The child is under the impression that she is going to get better.

It is not my place to tell my niece what is truly happening, but sooner and not later, she should be told the truth. Am I wrong to feel that this child needs to know and that it should come from her mother? Or should I just keep quiet?


Kids are intuitive. They pick up on everything around them. The daughter has probably put two and two together already. She knows that this is more than just a casual sickness.

If you have a question for Mike Riera about dealing with your teen, send an email to with "Ask Mike" in the subject line. Or write to "Ask Mike" The Saturday Early Show, 514 West 57th St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10019. Your question may be featured on future shows.
The ideal way for her to be told is for her mom to sit down with her and tell her now what is going on. This allows her to start her grieving. I'm not sure if this makes the grieving any less painful. This is not easy to do.

The right way to say it, is to say it boldly. Don't couch it in other terms. Be direct.

If the daughter knows, she will be able to have different conversations with her mother in the coming months. The mom can tell her daughter what she hopes for her future. It will be hard for the daughter to hear this but, in the long run, it will be important for her.

It's important for the daughter to trust the world around her. The more people that deny her mother's illness, the less she will be able to trust herself. The sooner she knows, the sooner she can deal with closure.

The aunt can talk to her sister and say, "I think we need to let your daughter know, and is there any way I can help?" The aunt can offer to talk to the daughter herself. She could talk to the daughter with the mother actually in the room.

The physician could also break the news. The physician and the sister can sit down with the mother and let her know, together, that they think the daughter needs to know the truth.

Being A Part Of My Dughter's Life

Dear Mike,

I have a 13-year-old daughter who lives with her mom, and I see her every other weekend. I am so busy, but I still want to be more a part of her life.

Some people say if I spend more time with her, it would be disruptive to her schoolwork and her life. Is there any way to be more a part of her life without spending more time with her?


When they become teen-agers, you have to blend into their lives, not them blending into yours. Transitions between one household and the other are always the most difficult time.

The parent has to continue to invite his daughter to do things. What she needs more than anything is to see him make time for her in his behavior. This can't always be when it's most convenient for him.

Other ways to stay connected:

  • email
  • Send her cards and letters
  • Think about planning a special trip with her somewhere. Let her have a lot of say in where they are going to go and how to do it. Maybe she should invite a friend. At 13, a lot of kids don't want to hang out with their dads. Bringing a friend gives them more comfort.
  • Work on a project together. It's about using your creativity as a parent. Work on a project that interests both of you. This gets at one of the challenges for non-custodial parents. When they pick up the kids, it's like, "Now what? What do we do?" Having a project to work on cuts through a lot of the transitional stuff. It makes things less uncomfortable.

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