Jonnie Irwin concerned his kids won’t remember him: How to prepare children for death

Image of Jonnie Irwin appearing on Good Morning Britain to talk about his cancer diagnosis. (ITV)
Jonnie Irwin has opened up about his fears following his terminal cancer diagnosis, pictured appearing on Good Morning Britain. (ITV)

Jonnie Irwin has opened up about his concerns his young children are “not going to remember me”, having been previously diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The 49-year-old, A Place In The Sun and Escape To The Country presenter, said it was hard to see nice things happen for his family, knowing that he was “not going to be around much longer”.

Earlier this month, Irwin said he did not know “how much time I have left” after his lung cancer spread to his brain.

He revealed the first warning sign of his illness came while he was filming in Italy, when his vision became blurry while driving.

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The broadcaster shares three-year-old son's Rex and two-year-old twins Rafa and Cormac with his wife Jessica.

“Every time something really nice happens with them, I have this thing knocking at my door, saying, ‘don’t get too happy because you’re not going to be around much longer’," he told The Sun.

“Then I think they’re not going to remember me, they’re really not.

“They’re too young and if I die this year there’s no chance they will have memories.”

He added: “Someone else is probably going to bring them up. I’ve done the hard yards with them and someone else will get the easy bit.”

Having opted to keep his illness private until recently, Irwin previously told Hello! magazine that he hoped sharing his diagnosis would inspire others to “make the most of every day”.

Read more: How to spot anxiety in your child – and how to help them

Stock picture of Jonnie Irwin and Jasmine Harman in 2007. (Getty Images)
The presenter has opened up about his terminal cancer diagnosis, pictured with colleague Jasmin Harman in 2007. (Getty Images)

How to prepare children for loss

Losing a loved one is a heartbreaking experience at any age. But for children, who often find it difficult to understand their feelings, coping with an upcoming bereavement can be a real struggle.

But while difficult, readying a young person for the news that someone they’re close to isn’t going to get better is a vital aspect of the grieving process.

"Preparing children for the death of a loved one is important but often something that is replaced by wanting to protect them," explains grief coach, Dipti Solanki.

"It's really natural to want to shield them from the reality of death and the sorrow that can ensue - so it can be a double-edged sword.

"But when we fail to prepare children, it can lead to anxiety and depression further down the line for them because there are often so many unanswered questions, curiosity about the process, what may have happened to their loved ones and fear about what will happen to everyone else around them."

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Stock picture of a mother talking to her daughter. (Getty Images)
How to prepare children for the loss of a loved one. (Getty Images)

As a result, Solanki says it is vital that we are able to speak to children about the subject, no matter how difficult.

Pick your moment

Choose the time and environment carefully when you speak to them, says Solanki. "Make sure it feels safe and unhurried."

Macmillan Cancer Support points out that it is often easier for children to hear information in small chunks, rather than all at once. "You may need to repeat simple messages several times," the site adds.

Use clear language

Macmillan Cancer Support recommends using simple words such as ‘dying’ when you tell young children about a forthcoming death.

"Try not to use phrases that may confuse them," the site explains. "For example, saying that you will be ‘going away’ or ‘going to a better place’ may make a child feel that you are abandoning them."

Equally Solanki recommends avoiding terminology such as 'they will go to sleep'. "This kind of language has led some children to become terrified of sleeping in case they don't wake up," she explains.

Watch: A Place In The Sun presenter Jonnie Irwin explains why he kept cancer diagnosis secret

Be open and honest

Solanki recommends you answer the child's questions to the best of your ability. "Be guided by their curiosity and anxieties," she says.

Keep the conversation going

Ensure that children know it's not a one and done conversation. "They need to know they can come back at any time and ask anything big or small," Solanki explains.

Show children how to express themselves

They may struggle to find the right words so encourage them to show how they're feeling through writing, play and art.

Normalise their feelings

Children may feel a whole host of emotions including anger, fear, introversion, extroversion, so it is important to let them know that however they are feeling is ok.

"Let them know whatever they feel is normal and natural and that it won't feel this way forever, that their feelings, thoughts, and questions will change over time," Solanki explains.

"It's important to ensure they know there is a constant place they can come back to, a safe harbour through what is likely to be a period of change and upheaval.

"Engendering a feeling of emotional safety should be at the core of these conversations," she adds.

Read more: Most parents worried about kids' mental health: How to spot if your child's struggling

Stock image of a mum and her child having a serious conversation. (Getty Images)
Parents may want to protect children but it is important to prepare them for loss. (Getty Images)

Let them find their own approach

Solanski says it is important to bear in mind that children will approach things very differently to adults and we have to be careful not to project our experiences onto them.

Seek help

Organisations such as Winston’s Wish or Marie Curie provide information about supporting children and teenagers when an adult is dying.

You can also look for local bereavement services near you at the Childhood Bereavement Network.

Macmillan Cancer Support has a booklet End of life: a guide which has more information, which parents and carers might find helpful.

Childhood Bereavement UK produces information about supporting children when a parent is not expected to live.