The Old Vic is showing a very emotional play at the moment. “A Monster Calls” is a brief story of a boy, Conor, whose mum is very sick with cancer.
He is looking after himself and his mum, he is also bullied at school and isolated from the rest of the world as a consequence of his particularly difficult
personal circumstances. His father has a new family and lives too far away to be of any help. His grandmother approach towards Conor and her daughter is not particularly sensitive, but she is the only one around.
One of the most difficult issues shared by any parent living with cancer is how to communicate with their children. Shall they tell them? How much do the children need to know? What is the best time and the best way to talk about it?
As it has been discussed in previous blogs, the matter of talking about cancer is difficult to any patient. When the patient is a parent, communicating with families and particularly sons and daughters, becomes a dreadful stumbling block. Parents always want to protect their children and family members, thus they say they are “fine”. They do not want to worry and upset the family. Children, youngsters, and other relatives find themselves pretending too. They keep their fear and anxiety hidden deep inside. They do not want to add their heavy burden on to the sick parent’s discomforts.
The play shows that the first and most important thing that sick parents, their families and friends want is to keep hope as high as possible… even when the evolution of the illness and treatment are showing that the prognosis is not quite optimistic.
What is the problem with this? Denial could have a negative impact on the patient if she/he does use this as a tool to avoid treatment. It could also have an undesirable impact in terms of the quality of life that affects the patient and all around them. If the person is facing death, the patient may not use their available time wisely, this is by sharing their valuable presence with their loved ones, and by organising matters to make their dependants safe after their parting.
From the perspective of the caregiver, the burden carried by denial can be huge. Children in particular, may guess the truth and fear the worst, but not talk about it openly. Children who are caregivers are forced to face dilemmas and responsibilities that could be too big and critical for their age and ability. They want the parent to be well. They want to live a “normal life” which has been taken away from them with no explanation or assistance. Children may become the main source of survival for a sick parent and this is a very demanding task.
What do we know about these young carers and their role?
“The Children’s Society is calling for more government support and recognition for these young people.
It says in England, one in 12 young carers spends more than 15 hours a week looking after a parent or sibling, that one in 20 misses school and that they are 50% more likely to have special educational needs or an illness.
The study, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, analyses government data that tracked 15,000 children in England aged 13 and 14 between 2004 and 2010.”
Source: BBC (16/05/13)
The burden of responsibility that looking after a parent involves, is bigger and more complex that the task for an adult caregiver. Despite this, there are too many youngsters in this situation all over the country. They receive very little help and support. They may be deprived of the appropriate environment to live, to learn and to progress into a balanced adulthood.
There is another issue that the play at the Old Vic brings about for discussion: How helpful could be for a parent to disguise the truth? Is it correct to think that the child/young person can be lied to under pretences of “everything is fine” and “you do not need to worry because everything is going to be fine” when we know it is not the case?
The problem for a patient with cancer is definitely, a difficult one. We want to protect our children and relatives. But protecting them may implicate facing cancer and its prognosis face-to-face. And after that, may also require the strength to act with courage. Communicating and sharing our fears and concerns with our loved ones requires fortitude, requires valour.
Facing a parent illness is extremely hard. Looking after a parent could be gruelling and arduous. Refusing to talk to these children and youngsters with honesty increases the burden on their shoulders. A burden that they have no choice but to bear, but which they should not ought to have.
The Old Vic. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Available at: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2018/a-monster-calls Till Saturday 25th of August.
BBC (16/05/13) “Young carers: Quarter of a million children provide care for other.” Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22529237 [accessed 26/07/18]