My children are twins, a boy and a girl, who just turned six. My type 1 diabetes is twenty years old. Though I have gone a full two decades without any diabetes emergencies, I know that doesn’t mean one couldn’t happen. Since I homeschool my kids, if I ever were to need help, there’s a good chance they would be present. They’ve already been told to get help if I ever suddenly seem to be asleep, and I knew my kids were now ready for more information.
I sat my children down one morning at the dinner table with a bowl of grapes, thinking the grapes might sweeten the conversation. I explained that there was always a small chance that I would need help with my diabetes and that if they were alone with me, I would need their help. This automatically alarmed my daughter. She said, “Wait, what happens if we mess up?” I quickly jumped in to comfort her. “No, sweetie, this isn’t really something you can mess up. In the case you ever see me unconscious, or if I seem asleep and you can’t wake me, then I just need you to get help. “Okay, how do we get help?” she asked straightforwardly with her arms crossed on the table.
I posted 911 and our address on the fridge. We practiced pretending to call 911 and what they might say to the operator. I let my children know that they could also run to the neighbor’s house to get help. They know which of our neighbors are retired and usually at home. I also told them they could help put sugar in my mouth and rub it against my gums. I talked about how to administer glucose gel if I was already on my back, but I watched their eyes glaze over in fear, so I stopped.
“What would you be comfortable doing to help me?” I asked.
“Getting the neighbor to help,” my daughter said.
My son agreed.
I told them just rubbing some honey or jelly on my gums would be a big help. My son mentioned he would use only small amounts of honey or jelly so that I would still be able to breathe.
Over the course of four days, we continued to talk about the ‘what if’s, and I began to understand what a fine line there is between empowering small children and terrifying them. I tried to lighten the load and put diabetes into a context that a six year old would understand. “Think of it like falling down,” I said. If I fell down and needed help getting up, you would get an adult to help me, right?” This seemed to make sense to them. “It’s the same with diabetes. I just need to get back up.”
I worked these kinds of simple discussions into meals and made sure the children seemed relaxed and open to the information. On the fourth day of our talks, my son asked the dreaded question. He said, “Mom, what happens if help doesn’t get to you in time?”
I hesitated before I replied because it was a question I didn’t want to answer.
“Could you die?” my son asked.
I didn’t sugar coat it. I calmly looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes, that is a possibility.” Then I added, “But I’m not worried about that because I take precautions to avoid being in that much trouble.” He looked at his sister, as though he wanted to see her reaction before revealing his.
“I teach you and your sister what you can do for me, just in case,” I said. “And knowing what to do can take some of our fears away.”
My son looked away from me and I watched his eyebrows furrow up and down. Then he spoke quietly and said, “You mean like how we keep band aids and other things in the house in case one of us gets hurt?”
I nodded, and my daughter, the optimist, jumped up, proud of her brother, and squealed, “Yes! That’s what Mommy is saying. We know just in case and hopefully we never ever have to help her!”
At that moment I couldn’t help but think of all the things I hoped they might one day help me with. I wasn’t thinking of life saving, but rather of simple every day things like cleaning their room and washing their dishes. Then I burst out laughing at the way my mind segued from near death emergencies to daily chores. That’s really what type 1 diabetes is like – the back and forth between low blood sugar and going about your daily routine as if nothing really happened.
My daughter crossed her arms across her chest and asked why I was laughing. “Mom, be serious,” she said. “We are talking about a serious thing.” Yes, yes we are. I turned to my children and said, “Thank you both so much for being willing to help if I ever need it.”
“Of course, Mom!” my daughter said.
“Can we go play now?” my son added.