In a Health Crisis, You Come First. But What About the Kids?
Speaking with children about a parent's health crisis
By Lorena Junco Margain
“In sickness and in health” are five short but powerful words we all know well. While few people enter a lifelong relationship anticipating sickness or health struggles, as adults we understand the implications and make the conscious choice to accept them.
Fast forward to a time when we have children. A health crisis will inevitably affect them, too. Yet most often, it’s not something they’ve even imagined until the crisis hits. This leaves parents in an awkward position: we have to share difficult news that’s hard for kids to process and help them understand what’s happening—all the while continuing to nurture them and remain mindful of their needs and mindset as kids.
This would be a lot in ordinary times, but when we’re in the midst of the crisis ourselves, the challenges multiply. How do we care for our children, emotionally and physically, when our top priority must be to care for ourselves? How can we talk to them without scaring them and keep them close while maintaining a safe and necessary distance?
These are questions I have had to contemplate often for more than a decade. Thirteen years ago, I began experiencing symptoms that I later learned were due to a tumor on my right adrenal gland. The symptoms themselves, including dizziness and lethargy, were a health crisis. But the crisis amplified when the surgeon treating me made a grave mistake: instead of removing my right adrenal gland, he removed the left adrenal gland. This error left me with a lifetime of medical issues I must confront every single day. Although ultimately, a second surgery removing part of my remaining adrenal gland saved my life, I now live with only one-half of one adrenal gland. There are days and often weeks when I am excessively fatigued. I am often plagued with extreme fatigue, pain, depression, and confusion.
My children were young when this journey began: my youngest—my son—was an infant, and my daughters were toddlers. My ongoing health issues have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about living with them, supporting them, and loving them against this backdrop:
Share your health struggles with them in an age-appropriate way
It’s natural to want to shield children from news that’s frightening to you, but they’ll sense it if you’re holding back important information. Kids pick up on the most surprising things! And knowing just a little but not enough can lead them to imagine the worst possible scenarios. Instead, explain what’s happening in a way that matches their age and ability to understand. Stick to the big picture, especially for younger kids (for example, “Mommy is sick but the doctors are helping her”), and add key details for older kids, such as the nature of the illness.
Lean on friends and family
When you or your spouse are at the center of the crisis and can barely keep it together, you may not be the right ones to speak with or care for your children—at least not all the time. That’s where friends and family come in. Let them step in and help by taking the children, speaking with them about the situation in terms you’ve agreed on in advance and demonstrating to the kids that they’re loved and supported even if mom and dad are preoccupied. I’ll never forget the times my own kids came skipping home after a playdate or a movie and am forever grateful to the people who stepped in and organized these outings. After all, kids are kids—and most often they just need to be kept safe and happy. And they’re much better off distracted and entertained than sitting by your bed worried and afraid.
Let them glimpse pain but not be overwhelmed by it
It's always tempting to remove kids altogether from painful situations, but it's also healthy for them to experience a level of pain that they can tolerate and process. Pain and hardships are an important part of life. Pick some times when they can be with you and see your discomfort. Talk to them about how you feel, and answer their questions. But make sure there are plenty of other times when they are busy focusing on their usual activities, and are not overwhelmed by the more difficult moments.
Give them opportunities to help
Kids feel empowered and uplifted when they’re involved and can make a contribution—so let them! Maybe they’d like to hold a warm compress to your forehead or take your temperature. How about bringing you a glass of water or brushing your hair? The possibilities are endless. Be creative and the joy will overpower the angst.
Remember: life goes on
I still clearly remember one evening shortly after I learned about the surgeon’s error. My husband, Eduardo, and I were having dinner together at home with the kids. I was overwhelmed. Eduardo and I were both still reeling with shock. Yet when I got up from the table to take a phone call from my doctor, I heard Eduardo telling the kids to eat their veggies and not just the cheese. In other words: life goes on. Their routine continued as always, as if nothing had changed.
In many ways, nothing had changed—and that’s the most important lesson I learned. Our children were and will always be the same happy, energetic young individuals they were from the moment they came into this world. Our job as parents is to honor that with love and honesty, and to do what we can in both sickness and health to keep them grounded in their routines so they feel safe and stable and can flourish.
Lorena Junco Margain is an author, art collector, and philanthropist as well as an advocate for forgiveness and compassion. After surviving a surgeon’s error in 2012 that left her with a lifetime of medical issues, she penned a memoir about the experience, On the Way to Casa Lotus, promoting forgiveness as a force for personal and universal change. A USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller, On the Way to Casa Lotus won the American BookFest’s 2021 Best Book Award for narrative nonfiction. It has received praise from Camila Alves McConaughey, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of WomenOfToday.com; Nancy D. Perrier, M.D., F.A.C.S., Chief of Surgical Endocrinology, University of Texas M D Anderson Cancer Center, and many other prominent voices.
Born and raised in Mexico (Monterrey and Mexico City), Lorena studied visual arts and has co-founded galleries and exhibitions in Mexico and London. She co-founded and curated the Margain-Junco Collection with her husband, Eduardo Margain, to support emerging artists, foster the art scene in Mexico, and promote awareness of Mexican art internationally. You can learn more at www.LorenaJuncoMargain.com