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Coping With Terminal Illness: Strategies to Help Students

written by: Julia Bodeeb • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 8/26/2015

A terminal illness in a parent typically sends a teenager into a state of anxiety and despair. It is important to reach out to teens in crisis; let them know you care and offer them tools to cope during this very difficult situation.

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    A student who has a parent with a terminal illness may be withdrawn and in shock or may be acting out in anger. Most students in this situation tend to feel very isolated from their peers; they are probably the only person they know having this very difficult experience. Having a parent who is very ill is one of the most stressful experiences a student may ever face.

    Talk to the Student

    If a parent informs you that a student is in the midst of a family crisis due to a parent’s terminal illness it is important to reach out to the student and let them know they may ask for a pass to the Guidance department at any time if they feel an urgent need to talk to someone about their situation.

    Also let the student know that you are available to talk if the student feels overwhelmed by family or school issues. Reassure the student that if they get behind in their work while a parent is in the hospital you will give them every chance possible to have as much time needed to make up the work. Let the student know you are aware of the stress they are experiencing. Sometimes it helps students to just know that someone at school is aware of the crisis they are experiencing.

    Give Coping Advice

    Remind students to take care of themself when a parent is in crisis. Ask the student if they are eating well and getting enough sleep. Advise the student to stick with their normal schedule and not allow stress to wreak havoc with their sleeping patterns. Suggest that if the stress feels overwhelming they go for a walk to calm down. They should also always reach out to an adult in the family or at school if the stress becomes unbearable.

    Be Discreet

    Tell the student that you will keep their situation confidential. However, ask them if they want you to inform anyone such as their guidance counselor or the school psychologist. Tell them that most people in their situation would want to talk to a counselor at the school and that they should not feel shy or awkward about reaching out for help.

    Reading Materials

    Give the student a reading list of books that may help them in this family crisis. Teenagers feel isolated very easily so books that show how other families coped with a terminal illness diagnosis may be very helpful to the teen. Reading builds a sense of community no matter what problem a teen is experiencing. Some sample books to include on a reading list about a parent who has died or is dying include:

    “How it Feels when a Parent Dies" by Jill Krementz

    “Early Winter" by Howard Bronson

    “Dealing with a Terminal Illness in the Family" by Heather Lehr

    “Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens" by Alan Wolfelt, PhD

    “Tiger Eyes" by Judy Blume

    Try to keep some books on hand to help students who are in crisis. It is easy to find inexpensive books at thrift shops, book sales and flea markets.

    Helpful Websites

    Inform students with a terminally ill parent of websites that may help them understand the grief process or learn about other families coping with this same problem. Helpful websites include:

    Facing Bereavement

    Cope Care Deal. org.

    Terminal Illness

    Give the Student a Journal

    Writing is very helpful during times of stress. If a student is in crisis give them a journal to write down their thoughts and fears. Writing is therapeutic and helps relieve stress.

    Be Proactive

    Be proactive to help a student in the midst of a family health crisis. Reach out to the family often and let them know you are keeping a close eye on how their child is doing in school during this time of family turmoil.