'Living in parallel worlds' – bereaved parents' experience of family life when a parent with dependent children is at end of life from cancer: a qualitative study

Cherith J Semple, Eilís McCaughan, Esther R Beck, Jeffrey R Hanna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background: When a parent of dependent children (<18 years old) is at end of life from cancer, this has a profound impact on the family. Children less prepared for the death of a parent are more susceptive to poorer psychosocial adjustment in later life. There is a lack of understanding from the literature surrounding what support parents require, and how they navigate this end of life experience. Aim: To explore bereaved parents' experience and needs for families when a parent is at end of life from cancer with dependent children. Design: In-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with 21 bereaved mothers and fathers, identified from the general public, a family support service and hospice. Data were analysed thematically. Results: Parents often live in 'parallel worlds' throughout the end of life period. In one world, 'living in the moment', cherishing the ordinariness of family life, remaining hopeful treatment will prolong life, whilst adapting as the illness unfolds. The other world presents as 'intermitted glimpses that death is approaching', shadowed with painful emotional concerns surrounding their children and the future. At the end, death rapidly approaches, characterised as suddenly 'falling off the cliff'; placing significant demands on the well-parent. Conclusions: Amidst challenges, clinicians should provide parents with clear information surrounding a poor prognosis, so families can plan and prepare for parental death. There is a need for healthcare professionals to engage, encourage and equip parents, as they prepare their children throughout the end of life experience for the inevitable death of a parent.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)933-942
Number of pages10
JournalPalliative Medicine Journal
Issue number5
Early online date26 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2021


  • parents
  • cancer
  • qualitative research
  • end of life
  • children

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