What to tell parents whose child dying of cancer

Hi All

I have some very good friends whose 7 year old son seems gradually to be losing the battle from a brain tumour… They have been fighting the battle for 4 months now…

Does anyone have any thoughts on what one says to them in this situation? Any words of special significance which might strike a meaningful chord. Any poems or quotes that might help? Maybe some of you have been through something like this - losing a loved one to cancer or some other disease?

They are strongly Christian, although not Catholic - not that that makes any difference in this situation I suspect…

Any ideas or words of wisdom that I might pass on to them would be appreciated…


Others may have better suggestions, but in my opinion, what you say matters little. It’s your presence and your comforting support that will make a difference in the long run.
Just make sure that you let them know you are there for them. Offer some practical support: such things as making a meal for the family, babysitting younger children. helping with housework perhaps.

When my son was hospitalized after a near drowning, the person who helped me most was a woman I only knew casually, but she came to the hospital to spend time with me. I don’t at all remember what she said, but her presence was very comforting.

I’m sure that your prayers and concern for them will help them in this difficult time.

Thanks Viki - and fair enough - I appreciate your thoughts. The difficulty I have is that the family are, I think, desperate to just spend as much time together as they can, whilst they still can. (They have 3 boys under the age of 7.)

I have on a few occasions said that if there is anything I can do, be it visit etc, I would be very happy to do so. But I think their time with their son is so precious now that they actually don’t want to lose out on any of this time by spending it with others. I actually feel like I am imposing by offering to be there for them, if you know what I mean…

Cooking meals is something we can and have done… And I send them regular emails… I think one just wishes that one could find some words to give them strength…

But I hear you and I realise that in their situation, words will likely do little… Thanks for your thoughts… much appreciated.

It sounds like you are doing all that anyone could do.
Perhaps you will be able to do more, or different things, if their son does pass. They might feel overwhelmed at that point. I know that in their position, simply coping with caring for siblings – providing meals, bed time rituals, etc – might be extremely hard.
I think that’s where the custom of bringing meals to bereaved families started – people just can’t cope for awhile at that point. Yet small children have to be fed, changed, and go on with their routine.
As far as what to say, maybe short quotes such as Romans 8:18:18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
Or maybe not. That might work in a card, but bereaved parents probably don’t want sermons, just heartfelt sympathy.

I appreciate that you’re looking for the “right” words to say to them but there is really very little that you can say. In some ways, we are all Job’s comforters; no one knows another’s pain. What you might like to do however is ask them if they need anything and just be a support for them.

You have received many good pieces of advice and I concur that presence is more powerful than words at this point.

But I would like to comment on the sentence I bolded. Do not wait to be asked – if you see a need, do it without asking. Many people need things but are afraid or unsure how to ask – and in some way, you have just “added” to their burdens by they having to do the “thinking” for you.

Continue to make meals, offer to babysit for an afternoon or evening, offer to clean the house, make sure their trash is put out, etc. I’m sure you get the idea. A good approach is to think if you were in their situation, what would YOU want people around you to do to help you.

These situations are always so difficult to know what to do but I am sure you should do something. If there are other children offer to take them out to dinner or a movie, cut their grass, bring dinner once a week, and don’t give up no matter what. Offer to sit with the child while they take a nap or a shower and just be there for them. In addition, I will pray that God will heal this child and give the parents strength and courage.

Thanks to each of you for your comments. I appreciate each and every one of them.

And of course all and any prayer is powerful and appreciated too…

God bless


I have two children in Heaven now - one we lost suddenly, one over an extended illness. In my experience, there’s really nothing anyone can say or write that will “strike a chord” in such a tragic, heartbreaking situation. (And there’s a lot that will hurt…some of the well-intentioned-but-truly-horrible cards, emails, and even face-to-face comments still disturb me, years later.) I recommend avoiding any instinct to go for the “Hallmark moment” - there will be plenty of poetry, Bible quotes, etc, sent their way in the days to come. In my experience, the most meaningful support came from thoughtful action. Previous suggestions are all good - putting out the trash, cutting the grass, bringing by groceries or food. Depending on how close you are with the family, you might consider something more personal - help them make memories. Send over a game, snacks, prizes for a “family game night” and offer to take photos. Or a movie night - drop off a favorite DVD, snacks, etc. If the ill child is declining, offer to bring the other kids to a basketball game, or a movie, or the zoo. Take lots of photos to give to their parents. Memories are the greatest gift you can give the family losing a child.

Hi KnitNut

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, particularly in view of your own experiences in this regard…

My 4 1/2 year old daughter died of Leukemia in 1996. The two posts above are the 100% exact correct answers.

Just show up. Don’t “tell” them anything. Take some of the burden off their shoulders by taking care of every day activities as others have said. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Listen. Most of all, just be there.


The OP made me cry.

KnitNut made me smile.

I don’t know if I can give any better recommendation of KN’s advice.

If you can arrange something they can do together, that may say more than any words. Including the transportation as well as the activity itself.

Others who’ve lost children should probably give you advice on this idea- when you are there, take pictures or video of them together? Would that be of benefit, to have more pictures/videos of the family to look at in the future?

Here’s an idea if it were closer to summer and warm at night. Neighbors have a computer projector, they put it up and project a movie onto the side of their house (Put up a sheet) basically creating an outdoor theater, folks bring snacks. Might think about doing something like that…

Seven is the age of reason, so you should try to get the parents to exhort the boy to make peace with God, if they have not already done so. I suggest praying and doing serious penance for him, that God might grant him the grace of perfect contrition and pardon him for any mortal sins he may have committed and grant him the grace not to commit any before he dies - that is all that matters.

I agree with other posters, please don’t try and search for words of special significance or meaning that will strike a chord…THERE ARE NONE. The loss of a child is too deep for words, poems or songs. People wanting to make me feel better in my grief often went on and on saying useless and sometimes weird things. The best thing anyone ever did for me was to say a single word “Sorry” and gave me a hug.

You are a good friend to want to reach out, it is normal to want to find something, anything to help your friends! It is now you realize how helpless you are, God is good, ask Him to step in where you cannot, ask Him to help this family. God bless you.

I just cannot believe this post!!!

This is the advice I have gotten:

Listen. If they have a CaringBridge journal going, for instance, make posts that show you are cheering for their son. Avoid the temptation to give advice. Instead, validate what they are saying, letting them know you are listening to them that way, if they are inclined to share what they’re going through. Validate their optimism–a child who seems to be dying of a disease sometimes pulls through! When you send cards, show support for what they are doing and tell them how special they are to you, rather than making suggestions to improve how how they are coping. Above all, try to reach out in ways that will delight and buoy up their child. Especially look for ways to lighten the days that are going to be filled with a lot of waiting around or are otherwise tiring and stressful.

Follow their lead. Avail yourself of the way they want to get news out about their son’s condition. If they post things on the internet, don’t call them up and ask for a personal account. If they have Grandma getting out the news, talk to her, rather than asking them questions. If they have a fellow parishioner running the prayer line, stay tuned for those.

Make concrete offers for help. Don’t just say, “If there is anything we can do, let us know.” If they have a intermediary running these things, go through that party, but in any event make concrete offers, such as doing laundry, cleaning the house, grocery runs, chauffeuring the other children, visiting the parents during waits at the doctor’s/hospital, and so on. If you do offer something as an option, do NOT say, “You ought to do this.” Rather, say, “I’m sure you have everything covered, but if you ever want to do X, I know people in that area I could connect you up with.”

As others have said, just be there.

I think an incredibly thoughtful idea would be to hire a photographer to capture these final precious moments. Someone who can just fade into the background for a few hours. I know there is an organization that is set up that provides photographers for births where the parents know beforehand that the baby will not live. Check to see if such an organization exists for this purpose in your area or check around to see if one would be interested. You will quite likely find one that will donate their time.

Also, on that same note, maybe take the lead in creating a slideshow of their family photos. Many like to have this as part of the funeral service or to play during visitation.

Praying for your friends.

“I’m so sorry.”
“What can I do to help (ie bring meals, etc)”
“I am here for you–call me whenever you need to talk.”

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