Telling the Children

My wife was dying, and telling the children was the next step.

My wife and I struck out on our journey to prepare, protect, and parent our three sweet teenage daughters. There is no right or wrong way to convey this message. But there may be better or worse ways to help your children transition through one of the most difficult experiences of their young lives.

Oddly, we did not realize the enormity of the task we were undertaking at the time, probably due to stress, fatigue, and emotional exhaustion. But we both felt in telling the children, there was a very important mission to accomplish that would affect our children’s lives for decades.

Developing a Plan

We developed a plan to tell our children about their mother’s health, and that she was going to die.

We decided that it might go better if Dad walked them through this forest alone as the immediate emotional intensity of a sick parent in the room would make it harder for them to ask open questions. I thought of all the times we did Daughters-and-Dad-Only-Days, giving Mom a break for the weekend. Planting flowers every year, building things with hammers and saws, renting a convertible, picking out artwork together, and ten-year-old birthday trips.

Little did I know that along those fun journeys, I was laying the bedrock of our relationship for this most difficult period of my three daughters’ lives.

Telling it in Layers

We decided that a strong footing on which to build this bridge was honest and timely communication. That is, be honest with your children, omitting some of the granular, gory details, but tell them. Tell them what you know when you know it and tell them what you don’t know. Having read as much as possible in three days about processing grief and how children of different ages perceived it, I felt a bit humbled by what I did not know.

Tell them what you know in the same time frame as you learn it, because they already know something is up. In the span of 42 days from diagnosis to death and unsure of the time frame, we broke our communication with our children into four segments. That might sound cold or callous, but we knew time was short, and it was the best chance we had to prepare them for the rest of their lives.

Actually Telling the Children

Within days of really understanding what we thought was going on, we started the process of informing our girls that their mom was going to die. We learned new things daily. We focused our best thinking on keeping the girls informed with what we knew almost each day as it changed.

Mind you, I thought I would throw up blood every step of the way and with each conversation with my daughters, but we needed to give them information in bites that we knew were true and thought, at the time, they’d be able to understand.

This is an excerpt from Stedman Stevens’ book A Beautiful Life: THE LITTLE THINGS THAT HELP GRIEVING FAMILIES: Stevens, Stedman: 9781734372007: Books. 

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Stedman Stevens

Stedman Stevens is an executive with a record of success building new business strategies in multiple industries that align products and services with costs and customers. Leading as President, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Executive Officer provides a strong understanding of the value of enterprise-wide integration of key initiatives as well as reporting to Boards. Healthcare. Mr. Stevens has been on the front line of healthcare managing clinical trials (PRP), accelerating medical device development (Confidant), building physician education programs (Access Worldwide) for the top 5 pharmaceutical companies, overseeing as Board of Directors for a $1B health system (NHRMC) and working on aging issues (UNC Health $4B) for retirement care and senior living facilities. Reach him at

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