A Compass Through a Topsy-Turvy World: New Book Published by JFS Helps Families with Seriously Ill Parents

By Gail Naron Chalew


This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish News of Louisiana. Visit www.jewishnola.com.

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 22–When a parent falls seriously ill, even the strongest family is catapulted into a hellish, topsy-turvy world. Just when a child needs his or her parents the most, that is when the parents are least able to respond.  

When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, the new book published by Jewish Family Services, is a compass through that world, providing needed direction and guidance.

Its co-author, Courtney Nathan, traveled through that world herself as a teenager, when her mother developed breast cancer; she died when Nathan was 17.

“That experience colors everything I do or decide to do,” says Nathan.

This book grew out of her personal life journey, coupled with her experiences and those of her co-author, Leigh Collins, as clinical social workers helping seriously ill parents and their children cope.

Nathan and Collins originally intended to write a pamphlet that could be distributed to hospitals and physicians’ offices. Yet, as Nathan notes, “We did an extensive review of the literature and found that while there were lots of books written for parents who were sick and lots about children who were sick, there was only one book about how ill parents and their partners could talk with their children about the illness.”

So, with the help of a grant from the Dora Ferber Foundation of Houma, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Endowment Foundation, they expanded their scope. They conducted focus groups and interviews and surveyed parents in all stages of illness, their partners and children, and physicians working with the seriously ill. From this research came a very practical, hands-on guide.

They write in the book’s Introduction: “Experience has taught us that no matter how well children are prepared and how successful they are at coping, a parent’s illness is always life-altering.”

To help ensure a positive outcome to that life-altering experience, the authors provide detailed information about how children process emotions and what they are able to comprehend at different ages. One chapter is subdivided into infants, 2- to 4-years old, 5- to 8-year-olds, 9- to 12-years-olds and adolescents, and each section has these two headings: “What They Understand and How They React” and “How You Can Help.”

Nathan says, “By gaining the knowledge of what children can and cannot understand at each stage, parents can learn best how to talk to them about the illness. And parents will learn not to get angry at what may seem heartless or selfish but actually are perfectly normal reactions from their children.”

“We also wanted the book to be very user-friendly so at the end of each chapter we have a list of Dos and Don’ts. We want a parent to be able to pick the book up and say, ‘Hey I can do that,'” says Nathan. “Many of these practical tips came directly from parents or older children who have lived through the experience and found they were helpful.”

And some of the tips are helpful for all families, even before illness strikes.

“Having lost my mother when I was 17, I only had the opportunity to know her as Mom, not how she was as an adult,” recalls Nathan. “There are so many things I wish I knew about her.”

“So that is why when I became pregnant the first time and now again when I am expecting again, I am keeping a journal. After 9/11 occurred, I wrote my daughter a letter, and I intend to do so when any significant event happens in our lives. I want my children to have some sense of who I am and what I want for them,”‘ adds Nathan.

She urges parents to do as much advance planning as possible.


About Gail Naron Chalew

Gail Naron Chalew is editor of the Jewish News of Louisiana.