August 25, 2017

Emmaus Walk / Debra Tomaselli

Scary diagnosis? Kids to tell? Here’s one way that works

Debra TomaselliSome suggest shielding children from the truth of your scary diagnosis, but that’s not what I chose. Looking back, I’m glad.

Our daughters were 5, 9 and 12 years old when I first received the cancer diagnosis.

We gathered around the table, where they climbed into chairs and turned their faces my way, awaiting the news.

“You know I went to the doctor today,” I began, “and they told me the results of those tests.”

I told them everything: that I’d been diagnosed with cancer, it was in its early stages, and that I’d have to visit the doctor a lot while they wait and decide when to start chemotherapy. I told them nobody knew when that would be. It could be weeks, months or years. Nobody knew.

I chose a matter-of-fact approach, mirroring the same calm manner the oncologist used when delivering the diagnosis to my husband and me.

I’d been concerned about the kids’ reaction, especially since my own mother died of cancer. But my concerns were unfounded.

Before I finished the first sentence, our 5-year-old slipped off her seat and was crawling under the table.

At the end of my talk, our 9-year-old asked, “Can I go next door and play with [my friend] Erin now?”

Only the oldest remained, pondering the information. “Oh, I get it,” she finally said. “It’s like having the HIV virus but it’s not really full blown AIDS yet.” (That was headline news at the time.)

And with that … life moved on.

I’m glad I was up-front. It was one of those teachable moments that showed them how to handle tough news. It developed a trust between us. After all, wouldn’t I want them to be truthful and candid with me—especially in tough situations?

Later, when they questioned if I was afraid and I admitted I was, I realized this gave them permission to talk to me when their own fears surfaced.

Looking back, I understood that my children, even the one crawling under the table, learned much that day. They heard the tone of my voice. They grasped the seriousness. They sensed the fear. They felt the camaraderie.

However, a bigger message surfaced.

As I spoke, they detected my underlying faith. They learned that while scary things do happen, we can be upheld by a strength far greater than our own.

Through the years, I’ve remained honest and straightforward. This diagnosis, scary as it was, helped me to grow in faith. We’ve had many teachable moments, and they all point toward the overriding love of God.

I know this life isn’t forever. I delight in each moment I’ve been given. I’ve grown in faith like never before. I cling to God, who loves us so very much, both now and to eternity.

We are here to do God’s will, not our own. No matter what happens, it’s all good. With God’s help, it’s a win-win. Peace that surpasses all understanding is within reach.

My kids know that, too.

(Debra Tomaselli writes from Altamonte Springs, Florida. She can be reached at

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