It was a very difficult balance, to juggle my own emotions and that of C's, and it was evident that in order to deal with both, I couldn't do all the 'right' things and there was overlap. When I first got diagnosed, C found me in an absolute heap of despair and he ran into my arms and joined me in grief that he didn't understand, but that I'm certain he felt. Similarly, when I went for my initial operation to have a tumour removed, I was so poorly that I feared I wouldn't come out of the anaesthetic. So much so that despite my best efforts, I broke down when I handed C over to his grandparents that morning, and wrote a note for him on my way to the hospital - just in case. I will never forget his face that day I found out, or that day of the operation as he left me that morning - that of utter confusion, shock, and fear. He mirrored my own exactly, and I have found it very difficult not to feel drowned in guilt about that since - about him seeing and feeling all the things that I wanted to protect him from.
But as much as I beat myself up about it - and as much as I fully believe that despite our children's unspoken intelligence and understanding, it's far too much to expose them to that much emotion - it is real life experience, and some life experiences are as raw as they come. I like to think that, for all my regret at not being stronger for him in those moments, it went a little way to teaching him that it's okay to 'feel', it's okay to cry, and that mummy gets scared too.
Before each operation, each chemo, each nurse visit, we would tell Charlie (age appropriately) what was going to happen well in advance and how we expected that I would feel afterwards. At this point in time C was just learning to talk, so it would've been easy to think that he wouldn't understand, but he did. The times I got home from surgery, he would make a bee line for me, would want to see where the dressings were on me, and to see that I was okay. The times I got home from chemo, he would do the same, to see that I was feeling poorly, and he would be so gentle with me - asking if he could cuddle me and respecting that I needed space to rest. At each nurse visit, he would pop in and out to see what was happening and show interest in the solutions / needles / dressings being used. It was all about including him in the process, and not only did this dispel any unnecessary anxiety on his part, it showed him how valued and relevant he was, and that in itself nurtured our bond during this period, when 'real' time spent together was so thin on the ground.
I met a lady during my treatment, who had been through the same things a couple of years before, and she had a young child in tow at the time as well. She talked to me about her child's behaviour change since her illness - about her child's terror at her leaving the house even for 5 minutes. It soon became apparent that for want of protecting her child, and not being aware of her child's ability to understand things so well pre-verbally, she had sought to exclude her from the whole phase of diagnosis and treatment. As clearly well intentioned as this was, the child had actually understood a lot more than she had bargained for, all by herself - and in fact she had filled in the gaps of missing information, believing that her mum could be gone for unknown periods of time at any given moment and bearing enormous insecurity about her mother being poorly.
Since treatment ended, there has been and still is a period of processing going on - even just tonight C has asked me if I'm staying with him, here in the house. It was a mountain that we climbed together, and one which was not in any way age appropriate for C to experience, but we all learned and grew a lot together. To all of our elation, he has come out of the other end a surprisingly confident, sociable, and grounded little boy, despite the emotional turmoil, and despite being isolated from socialising for 7 months.
This is an extreme example of not underestimating a child's intelligence, but the same rules go for everyday occurrences too - preparing children in advance for as small a thing as popping out to the shop can be so valuable to a child. Considering how we ourselves might feel if we were dragged away from something that we were enjoying to be forced out somewhere unknown, can unlock a lot of compassion for the way we treat our children in the way that we talk to them, and what we expect from them. Talking to them and thinking of them as an equal can be incredibly validating for a child, giving them a sense of control - thus developing self esteem, confidence and enhancing the bond between us and our children - and making transitions much easier for all to bear.
You can find information about RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), Janet Lansbury and Hand in Hand Parenting here: