By Alanna Kennedy
A couple struggles to talk to their daughter about death
By Alanna Kennedy
Words fall short for Debra Kent and Jamie Lamkin as they try to tell their 7-year-old daughter, Sofie, that one of her moms is dying.
“One of the hardest things for me is knowing how much information to give her,” says Kent, 55, who has stage IV ovarian cancer. Although she and Lamkin, 42, are no longer together as a couple, Lamkin—who is also a cancer survivor—is Kent’s primary caregiver.
“When the relationship broke up, we still were committed to [Sofie] and co-parenting,” says Kent. “And the cancer actually reinforced that. … All the other little things fall away when you’re dealing with two people having cancer in a 12-month period.”
Kent was initially diagnosed with stage IC ovarian cancer in March 2006 and soon underwent surgery and began chemotherapy. She nearly finished her treatments when Lamkin was diagnosed with stage IIIA endometrial cancer. Lamkin’s treatments went well. But in January 2007, Kent was diagnosed with a recurrence.
For Lamkin and Kent, one of the most challenging aspects of having cancer has been explaining the situation to Sofie.
“Initially we weren’t using the word cancer,” says Lamkin. “But we talked about treatments and surgery. … As Debra’s came back, we really started to refer to it as cancer and talked to her about it more.”
Currently, Kent’s cancer is not responding to treatment, though she’s been through several rounds of chemotherapy. In the following excerpts from their blogs, Kent and Lamkin discuss how they are helping Sofie deal with the stress of having a terminally ill parent, finding the small moments to talk about death and dying, and helping Sofie prepare for the future.
Debra Kent’s blog:
Managing the Moments
Sept. 30, 2007
… we started talking about Grandma’s dog Cooper, who is quite old and this weekend will be taken to the vet for his last visit. I tried to explain to Sofie how loved Cooper is and why Grandma knows it is time for him to die. And how even though this makes Grandma sad, she knows it is time. That sometimes animals and people die, even if we love them so much.
It seemed to lead naturally to opening up a discussion about death in general. At first, Sofie looked sad and when I asked her, she said she didn’t want to talk about it. But I gently pushed a bit, and reassured her that she could talk to me about anything. There was a tear escaping from her eye as she looked down ...
“Are you worried that Mommy might die?” Tears start to fall, just at the corner of her eye. She nods her head yes. “Like the girl at camp [whose] Dad died?” Uh huh. I took her into my arms. There really aren’t planned words for this kind of talk, they just come.
I told her I didn’t want to die either, but that sometimes cancer makes a person die, even if they don’t want to. I told her I am still fighting and still here for her. And that I would always be. And that, for always, I would be like an angel for her, always there if she needed me. …
I hate that I have to have these talks with her, that she is going to lose me too early. It isn’t fair, I waited my whole life to be her mother. I am determined to make the time we have together time that will be remembered with love. And tears too, I imagine. But I am so not ready yet. I want more time.
Jamie Lamkin’s blog:
The Complex One's Musings
A Great Kid Named Sofie
Oct. 8, 2007
… Sofie and I had another one of those “Mama Jamie/Sofie moments” discussing what’s going on with Debra. We’re in [the] car after leaving the dinner party when we get into a conversation about something I can’t recall. The talk evolved into Sofie making the statement that included, “when Mama Debra finishes treatment.” I replied, “Honey, Mama Debra is never going to be finished with treatment.” (I know that’s not true, but didn’t want to go into the discussion of what actually will happen if and when Mama Debra stops treatment.) “Whaaat? Whhhhyy?!?!” was her emotional reply. I could literally hear the pain and confusion in her voice. I teared up thinking of the best way to answer this plea. In my strongest, most confident voice I said,
“Honey, we don’t want Mama Debra to be finished with treatment. She’s having treatment to try to keep the Cancer out of her body.”
“Mommy, Mama Debra has had Cancer TWO TIMES!!” she replies.
“Actually honey, it’s the same Cancer.”
And then in a rambling that I know was too much information, I tried to explain how Mama Debra’s body just isn’t responding to the treatment and how most people do, but a small percentage don’t. I reiterated that my body did, so I’m okay.
Sofie got really quiet. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a sad, confused girl. I asked her if this made her sad. Quietly, she responded, “Yeah.” Then in the way that kids do, she changed the subject to a benign topic. …
My girl is taking care of herself the best way she can. I’m doing all I can to support her in this journey. I know we’ll all come out okay, I’m not looking forward to the last part of this ride.
To read more of Kent’s blog, visit: www.managingthemoments.blogspot.com.
To read more of Lamkin’s blog, visit: www.complex-one.blogspot.com.
To recommend a blog for CR’s Cancerblog column, send an e-mail to Kennedy@CRmagazine.org.
Editor's Note: CR was sad to learn that Debra Kent died on Dec. 21, 2007, just after this story went to press. We send our deepest sympathies to Debra's family and friends.