Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.I know a kid my age who has cancer. We don’t see him at school much anymore. I know he’s pretty sick. I’m scared to get it too. My mom said you taught her in high school, and I should talk with you because she doesn’t know what else to tell me. My grandpa died last year. He had cancer. I’m scared of dying too. What happens when you die?

– 9-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Thank your mom for telling you to connect with me. I’m glad you did.

Cancer and death are scary. Most people are afraid of both. Let’s talk about cancer first. Cancer is not contagious – that means cancer isn’t spread from one person to another like a cold. If one of your classmates is fighting cancer, it doesn’t mean you’ll have cancer.

Cancer doesn’t mean a person dies. When I was young, I was a pediatric oncology nurse – a nurse who takes care of children with cancer. Medicine has changed and better treatments are used today; many children with cancer get well and live long lives.

There are many kinds of cancers. I don’t know what type of cancer made your grandpa sick, but I’m sure it wasn’t a childhood cancer. Many grandparents die when children are young; it’s very sad, and we miss our loved ones when they leave us, but more older people die than younger. It’s part of life.

Death is often scary because it confuses us. When I wrote my book “Nonnie Talks about Death,” the characters Tamika and Alex ask the Nonnie (me) what happens after a person dies. I asked many friends and colleagues to share their personal beliefs about death and put their beliefs in the book. I discovered some people think life goes on after death and some people think it does not. Tell your mom if you’d like a copy of the book. I will get one for you.

I suggest you ask your mom about your family’s beliefs. She may be able to comfort you with her faith, if she has one. Stay close to your mom and continue to share your fears. Talking with her will help, even if she doesn’t know what else to tell you. It will help because your mom will know how you feel and support you.

What’s important is to live your life. I wake up each morning grateful for the day ahead. Because I teach, and I love teaching, I’m excited to start the day. Try to enjoy each day, even when things seem tough. You’re a strong person of worth.

Being afraid isn’t wrong; fear can sometimes help us focus on what matters to us. Facing fear is part of life. Pushing past fear can help us try new things and be strong.

Grieving means we feel sorrow when someone dies. It’s OK to miss your grandpa and there’s no limit on how long you will miss him. He would want you to life your best life.

I’m proud of you for facing tough situations. You sound mature and brave. Let’s continue talking.

Q.My father died when I was a kid. He wasn’t much of a dad. Mostly he was drunk, and he hurt my mom. I’m a father myself now, and I’ve starting to see why I never really mourned him. I know I won’t be like him. I know he really didn’t earn my love. But this Father’s Day I suddenly wondered how he felt when I was born. My son’s birthday is one of the best days of my life, better than my wedding or my college graduation or being discharged honorably from the service. I hold our baby and picture my father holding me. Did he love me the way I love my son? I know there’s no answer to that question, but I wonder if you would take a stab at giving me perspective. A while ago, when I wasn’t sure about school after I was discharged, you helped me sort out my thoughts. I’m glad I went to school. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d love to hear your thoughts again. Thank you.

– In my thirties but still have your contact number!

Mary Jo’s response: We don’t select our families or parents. It sounds as if your feelings at your father’s death were typical of the situation. You were a child. You knew your father hurt your mother, and you probably struggled with mixed feelings when he died. I think your reaction then was totally OK.

Time can make us introspective. Your experience as a new father was life changing. I’m glad. Falling in love with the challenging role of parent can be a great feeling! I remember your decision-making before you enrolled in college. You made your choices carefully; I only listened. The wisdom was all yours.

I’m not surprised you’re processing fatherhood and thinking of your father. I hear you when you say, from your heart, that you won’t be a dad like him. I believe you. I also think it’s wonderful you’re pondering his reaction to your birth. Can you connect with anyone who knew your father when you were a newborn and toddler? Most people’s lives are complicated, but there are moments of worth in all of them. Learning about him as a new dad might help you deal with your feelings and your lingering confusing over losing him.

You are not your father. Your choices are your own. You conducted yourself with honor in the service, graduated from a challenging college, and created your own family. You are your own person. Discovering empathy for your father’s life will not diminish you. No matter how you react to your changing feelings, you are a person of worth. Thank you for remembering me and for connecting. I’m proud of the way you’re living your life and I respect you.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.