fbpx Skip to main content

Jenni Thomas OBE, Grief Counsellor and RSF Support Advisor, shares 10 helpful insights for parents faced with an incurable diagnosis.

If you have recently learned that the cancer you have been diagnosed with cannot be cured, you may be concerned about whether to tell your children and what you need to tell them.

What to say to your children and how to say it will depend on the age and their ability to understand.

You and those closest to you may have different views on how to communicate with your child. However, if there are two parents, it will give your child peace of mind knowing that you and your partner agree on what you are saying.

Talking to your children about not having long to live is the hardest conversation any parent will have.

Before you talk to your child, give yourself time to think through what you will say and get support for yourself.

Think about the impact it will have on you as well as them. Talk it through first with your partner or someone you trust.

Evidence suggests that if this difficult conversation is approached in the right way, it is helpful for both children and parents.

"The following guidance is what dying parents with children have said they found useful when talking to their children."

Jenni Thomas

10 Support Steps



Children who have experienced the death of a parent or prime carer and who have been told what was happening, have said they were pleased they were included and would not have wanted to be left out of something so important.


It is alright to show some emotion when you talk to your child, but try not to be too emotional. Children learn how to be by watching the adults around them. It’s ok for them to be upset. Note that some children will show no emotions, while others may cry. Remember, there is no right way to be sad and grieve.

Time to Talk

Choose a time to talk to a child when there are no other distractions. It is better not to do this at bedtime.

Find Out What They Know

Start by asking what they know about your illness. They may have overheard or been told things that need to gently be corrected. For example: cancer is catching.

Keep it Short

Children manage things better, that are difficult to talk about, when the conversations are short. They can usually only manage a little at a time – especially when it’s sad news.

Give Comfort

Being physically close and having a hug if the child wants comfort, can be comforting for you both .

Use Real Words

Use words that are a correct description of your situation.
For example: ‘Mummy’s cancer is not getting better; the doctors and nurses have done everything they can to make me well again. This means I may not be able to do all the things I used to do. I may not live for very long."
If children ask whether that means will you die, it’s important to be honest and gently say yes, but letting them know that no one knows when exactly it will be.

After a Difficult Conversation

Always allow time to do something with your children that they enjoy, after talking to them about your diagnosis, like reading a story or playing a game with them. Children need to continue to have fun, to laugh and see their friends and go to school.

Talk to Their Teachers

When you have spoken to your child about something as important as dying, talking to their school teacher about how you’d like the situation managed for your child is essential.

Build Lasting Memories

Children may need to be encouraged to do small kind gestures for the ill parent. These gestures can create lasting memories for a child, by allowing them to be involved and kind before a parent dies.

If after reading through the above guidance of how to talk to your children about your incurable diagnosis you haven’t found the support you are looking for, and your family needs further support on how to talk to your children, please contact the Ruth Strauss Foundation for more information regarding pre-bereavement guidance.

Get in Touch

Every day families with dependent children come face to face with terminal cancer diagnoses. It was Ruth's belief that professional emotional support helps families remain connected: by communicating open and honestly with your children, families can embrace a parent's final journey together.

Ruth's visionRSF Support Mission