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Telling my son about how his father died
Oct 5, 2004

My first husband died in 1996 from complications from HIV/AIDS. I am negative and my son is negative too. My son was 4 at the time of his father's death. He is 12 now and asks a lot of questions about his father. I am having a hard time deciding of what to tell him, how much to tell, etc. He did disclose to me after I found out he was sick that he was bisexual and had been participating in risky behavior which exposed him to HIV. I am remarried now. My new husband adopted my son, and we now have twins that are 2. My son is relatively happy, but still has times where he is just so sad about not having his dad and sadly not remembering him like he would like to. Any advice on what I should share with him would be very appreciated. Thank you so much.

Response from Dr. Remien

You ask a very good, but difficult question to answer. I don't think there is one answer for all situations of this kind. The people involved, the history of occurrences, and the family context are all important considerations. It is normal and healthy for your son to want to know things about his father. Listening to him and taking your cues from what he is asking is an important starting point. In my experience, children are extremely perceptive and often are aware of more than we think. If he has heard or suspects certain things and senses that you being secretive by withholding information from him can be problematic.

In general, I think it is wise to answer children's questions directly, with some consideration of their age and cognitive level. It's often useful to ask them questions back, such as what is it you want to know? What have you heard? What are you wondering about? You should also discuss this with your husband and coordinate your responses to your son on this issue. Hopefully, you and your husband can be supportive of each other and on the same page about this. The bottom line is that your son deserves to know things about his father and there is no shame in being truthful. And chances are, he will eventually find out the full story. What would it mean to him if he finds things out and then knows you've been withholding the truth from him? Disclosure does not need to happen all at once. When you discuss things with him, listen to what he has to say and is asking and take it one step at a time.

How do I help him to talk about his positive status?
Possible Misdiagnosis

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