They're Not Really Superheroes. They Just Seem to Be!


They're Not Really Superheroes. They Just Seem to Be!

IMG_3246It is a real quandary. When potential fatal illness strikes someone in the family what do you tell the kids?

Our natural instinct is to protect our children from all harm - physical and emotional. If only we can shelter them from the storm all will be well.



When Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2011 I don't recall our initial thinking about what to tell our sons Gabriel (then 4) and Samuel (then 2).

We were entirely consumed with grown-up thoughts and our efforts revolved entirely around seeking the very best advice and care possible for Katie.

This was very much a natural reaction - as we have since learned. One which falls into the same category as the advice you're given on the airplane:  in the event of a sudden loss of pressure an oxygen mask will descend from the ceiling. Place it first over your mouth and nose THEN on your children.

Only we didn't have a mask fall from the ceiling.

We had lots of stuff fall on us but no source of immediate relief or insight.

At that time I am afraid our kids were somewhat left adrift and I still get the occasional pang of guilt thinking about it.

What I've learned since though is what happened with us is pretty darn typical and nothing to be ashamed of. The only shame would have been not to recognize the reality and continue to ignore what impact the turmoil was having on our boys.

The further reality is this: Samuel, due to his age, was largely inoculated from the experience. Gabe, on the other hand, is and always has been a sensitive boy with great awareness of what surrounds him. This does not negate the importance of being aware of the needs of all children only that sometimes one needs to focus more on the elder.

With that written, while admittedly learning by the seat of our pants, a few things stand out.

Be honest

While it might be tempting to try to keep your kids sheltered it is simply impossible. Katie chose, wisely and early on, to be open with the kids about what was happening. Face the fact that your kids know something is amiss. Their parents are more remote than before. They are physically absent more. Mommy won't be able to pick them up as often and she'll be in bed a lot when normally she would be playing with them, reading stories, or at work. They will notice, if you're lucky to have such support, that Nana and Grandpa are around the house a great deal more. They will notice Mommy and Daddy being very sad and sometimes even mad. Kids are ultra-sensitive to change. They can't necessarily articulate their feelings - mostly because they can't identify them at this age - but behaviours may change. They may do things at school that they wouldn't normally. Gabe, for example, developed more of an aggressive streak with his school and camp mates.

I recall one day, the first day in fact, picking him up at Appleby where he was attending camp, and the counselor called me over for a private chat. You know that's never good and seldom does the counselor want to share something triumphant with you! She advised that Gabriel had gotten physical with another child. When I asked what happened she related that while in the lineup for lunch another camper butted in line in front of Gabe. Normally, he'd let that slide. But this time he got physical. He didn't, as he has been trained by us and his Montessori teacher, use his words. Gabriel put a choke hold on the kid.

When I explained the situation - his mom is sick - the counselor was more empathetic. So here's another tip - be honest with your kids and let any of the people with whom your child interacts know what is happening in their lives.

We had a couple of similar incidents at his school but with care and attention and understanding that this was his only way of expressing himself we were able to help him adjust and manage himself better.

We have found the writings of Dr. Dan Siegel very helpful and highly recommend his book, The Whole-Brain Child.  In it he writes, "'s very important that kids learn about and understand their feelings. But it's also true that feelings need to be recognized for what they are: temporary, changing conditions. They are states, not traits. They're like the weather. Rain is real, and we'd be foolish to stand in a downpour and act as if it weren't actually raining. But we'd be just a foolish to expect that the sun will never reappear. We need to help children understand that the clouds of their emotions can (and will) roll on by. They won't feel sad or angry or hurt or lonely forever."

Make time

Any severe illness will devour time. Innumerable doctor appointments, hospital visits, consultations, treatments, visits to the pharmacy, home-care visits from the nurse, and all of the activities of 'normal' life seem to dominate every waking moment. And, when you're not consumed with real doing you may find your mind totally unfocused and wandering about in the world of chaotic rumination.


Your kids need you.

They need you to feel them.

They need you to see them.

They need you to hear them.

They need you to play with them.

They need you to be silly.

They need you to be you.

And what's NEED them.

You need your children to keep your perspective. To keep alive your sense of wonder and magic. To ground you. To bring you back from the precipice of doom and gloom. To make you laugh. To make you howl. To make you human. To make you YOU.

These little beasts are perhaps the most resilient creatures on earth and at the same time the most effective medication on offer for both the person stricken and the caresharer. You need only extend a focused hand and you will be rewarded with emotional riches beyond your ken.

Your children, well that is admittedly presumptuous - our children were at times the only bright lights as we traveled through the oppressive tunnel of ignorance and fear of the unknown.While we know they sensed our angst they quite simply refused to allow us to wallow in the mud-pits of despair. In them we came to recognize that regardless of whatever the outcome our lives would continue and it was incumbent on us to do our level best to give them the tools to live full, wholesome lives. Not fairytale lives, but real in-the-moment lives populated with events and people who would enrich them. In this regard we are very and specially grateful to the teachers at Clanmore Montessori here in Oakville, Ontario. ( These wonderful, caring people immediately embraced our kids in extra-special care and without them Gabriel and Samuel would have had a vastly different and challenging experience. Yes, we are fortunate in our ability to afford this care but I would suggest that there are people in all communities capable and willing to help. Which leads me to my next point.

Seek and accept help

If you're reading this you probably already know this.

Your natural inclination may be to never let your children out of your sight.

If people whom you trust offer to give you some relief with childcare accept the offer.

It will be good for them and it will be good for you.

The kids will have a chance to experience something different and you will have a chance to focus on each other without any concerns or guilt.

That is all.

Do it.

Investigate on-line support and insight

I will be the first to advise that you NOT research your caree's illness ad-nauseum. While the net is a tremendous source of information it also can lead one down paths that need not be followed.

However, given the subject matter of this posting I recommend the following link:

Some exceptionally good advice here and even if your illness proves not to be terminal the approach set out here is sound.


Your kids are not superheroes. They just seem to be.

There were days when I wished we didn't have kids.

Yes. It's true.

Somehow it seemed that it would make things so much more simple.

On a few of the darkest nights I tried to envision a future without Katie. Me. A 60-year old father of a three-year-old and a five-year-old.

As you can well imagine it really doesn't conjure up positive thoughts.

Until you realize this: your kids are remarkable. They, if given the proper environment and encouragement will be remarkable.  They will in total innocence help resurrect you from the depths. They will forgive everything. They will love and they will care and they will be pillars of support strong beyond anything you might imagine.

No, they are not superheroes. But they sure seem to be.

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Hello Don. I recently joined It's been quite inspirational. \r\n\r\nI have kids: two; Miguel is now 15 (turned 7 days ago), Inês is 16 (17 in September).\r\n\r\nThey've gone through all the motions. I had a really bad depression eight years ago. Took me three years to come through. And then, all of a sudden, when all was better, my parents started to get ill, and to need me so very much.\r\n\r\nInês and Miguel have always been there. We've always talked; they've always helped me pull through; they kept my feet on solid ground. I could have sunk and shriveled - they didn't let me.\r\n\r\nIt was a load. But am I amazed at their strength and courage!\r\n\r\nSo my parents are now ill. We've had an enormous change in our lifes: living at mum and dad's. Some days are really difficult. But incredibly the kids have held the ends of the rope.\r\n\r\nSometimes it hurts to now that they've gone through so very much, but they are the better part of us all. I give them a good amount of freedom, to go out with friends, for sleep overs; it's a reasonable amount for their age. But I know they need to be \"away\" sometimes. \r\n\r\nWe live in Portugal. Their father lives in Spain. Going off to see their father every once in a while (their father comes over every other weekend to be with them; or they're on the plane to Spain) is really important.\r\n\r\nSometimes I see my kids cry. They try to hide, but I don't let them. They're supposed to trouble me. Grandparents are supposed to be fortresses. When they longer are, is gets hard. Miguel and Inês are preparing to let go. So we hug. When we're able and willing we talk. We gather information about mum and dad's illnesses and we share doughts and new knowings.\r\n\r\nIt's a bit of this, and bit of that. We make it up as we go, so as to cover the gaps. One important thing is to give them time and space for their studies, homework and such. They have to feel the meaning and importance of all things that involve them.\r\n\r\nI'm very proud of them. They've gone through alot: divorce, depression, illnesses. And they still stand tall. \r\n\r\nKids are not made of china. They won't break. We just have to be there to embrace their troubles, just as much as they're there to embrace yours.\r\n\r\nLove the way your getting through everything with the little ones and your wife. Wish you all the best.


Don, there is so much wisdom in this post. I have always been amazed at how intuitive kids are. You and Katie are cued right into that. This entry in and of itself is a terrific guide.

Casandra Porter

How touching. Think you for that. I think Marc and I are lucky in that we only have the two of us to deal with in the household but he is extremely close to our nephews and I've seen them react to the things that are happening with Marc and I never know what to tell them or how to handle it. This is some great advice. \r\n\r\nI think you and your wife are doing a fantastic job! You have two very lucky boys :)


Thanks Richard. YOu make a great addition to this by pointing out that the kids can help and that's a great thing for them.


Hi--I'm not sure why, Don, but your last three posts are just leaving me teary-eyed. Your photos, your words, ah, they tug at my heart. \r\n\r\nThis post is simply beautiful. It's perfect for our eBook, Helping Kids Cope with Caregiving (just a little teaser--should be out by the end of the month). :)\r\n\r\nYour children look just like superheroes to me. They look like their parents. :)

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