Q&A: what to tell 2-year-old about mother going into the hospital

Joan writes:

"Hope you can help on this one.  My daughter in law (29 yrs.) is shortly to go into hospital for breast cancer surgery and whatever else the follow up treatment is in months to come.  She and my son have a very bright two-year-old little girl, Georgia, and I'm not sure how we should play the hospital stuff with her to make sure it affects her as little as possible.  For instance:

How long will it take until she realises that mummy hasn't been around for quite a while as opposed to just popping out?

What do we tell her about where mummy is?

Do we take her to the hospital so that she can see mummy (as mummy will probably want) or will she be scared and will it leave a  lasting impression?

Are we better just waiting until mummy comes home?

How do we cope with the after care situation of mummy not feeling well etc.?

In other words, how can I do the best for Georgia in this situation.?

Any other advice would be appreciated, as we are all a bit shell shocked at the moment.  But I do know that life has to be as normal as possible for Georgia - I just want to do the best thing for her."

I'm so sorry for your daughter-in-law, and for all of you.

You have to prep Georgia ahead of time for your daughter-in-law's stay in the hospital. There's absolutely no way a 2-year-old will not notice that her mother is gone, and if no one says anything about it it will terrify her. The long-term effects of that could be serious, not to mention how her behavior will spiral down immediately and add to the stress you are all dealing with anyway.

We had a question a few months ago about prepping a 2-year-old for his mother's stay in the hospital for an operation. (That situation was different because it was a rotator cuff surgery and she would be basically immobilized when she came home, but there was no worry about cancer.) The general consensus was that kids need to be told, and told repeatedly, where mommy is and why. I suggested making a little book for the child and reading it regularly about where mommy was going, what will happen at the hospital, and when she will come home.

Adults get really emotional and scared about cancer. But toddlers don't have any idea what it is or how worrisome it is, and they're also not scared of things like surgery yet. They just take it as you explain it. You can tell her (with the book you make) that mommy is sick and has a tumor (or you can use a word like "owie" or "boo-boo") inside her and the doctors need to cut it out with some knives. She'll be asleep while they cut it out, so it won't hurt her. She's going to be tired and the place they cut her is going to hurt for a long time, and she's going to have to stay in a special place called a hospital.

It'll probably be more scary to Georgia not to see her mother. So if you can bring her to the hospital, do it. At least then she'll have an image in her mind of where her mother is, and it'll make things easier for her.

This has to be so stressful and confusing for all of you. The thing to bear in mind when dealing with Georgia is that children are always way more scared by not knowing what's going on, and they don't have all the baggage that we do attached to things like hospitals and diseases. In her mind, mommy is sick, she goes to the hospital, the doctors fix her, she comes home and recovers, and things are fine. Even if the individual steps are a little scary, the overall narrative is reassuring. There's no need to deviate from that at this point or borrow trouble by withholding information, and it'll help you all, too, to be able to talk about it in a matter-of-fact and positive way.

I hope everything goes simply and smoothly for your daughter-in-law. You all are lucky to have each other.