Telling the family

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You had not been feeling brilliant for some time so your GP had sent you for diagnostic tests to the local hospital. Today, he has told you you have an inoperable cancer of the throat and are unlikely to live “beyond the summer”. Now you need to tell your three children. How can you do this?

Hard though it may be, they would each prefer to hear it direct from you, rather than second hand from a sibling. So you need to face the fact that you have three difficult conversations in quick succession. That is very demanding. Indeed it may be too demanding, in which case you need to think strategically.

In most families, seniority is respected, even in adulthood, so it would be natural for you to turn to the eldest child first - and, if you so decide, to ask him/her to tell the others.

How do you go about it? Obviously, much will depend on the quality of the relationship you have with your children. In these circumstances, however, there is probably little alternative to telling them straight. Warn them that there is bad news you need to share. Tell them you are sorry to burden them with it and that you love them dearly. (They will remember that and it will help them later.) Then give them the facts, straight, unvarnished, as you heard them from the doctor.

They will be shocked, horrified, distressed. Of course - perhaps especially if the dreaded C word has to be used. So assure them that right now you are physically fine; emotionally upset, of course, but you are not in pain, have reasonable energy, can keep going and can still enjoy your favourite pastimes. That is important because it gives them space, mental and emotional space, to come to terms with the new reality.

They will almost certainly have a host of questions - few of which will have genuine answers. Don’t brush them aside - it is important to the listener to be able to express them: rather be vague: “Can’t be sure”; “Don’t really know”. “We’ll have to see how it goes.” “That’s a question for the doctor”….Your son or daughter needs time to get over the shock, to adjust to a new future. Going in to the details now may feel helpful or a way of ensuring a degree of security in a spinning world, but careful, rational thought and insight will not be available in this turmoil. That can come later, when you and they have begun to adjust. (And that may well take longer than you initially expect.)

A common immediate response is: “I’ll come over right away.” That’s (usually) good: a hug is what you both need. At these times, touch speaks louder than words.

If you cannot face calling the siblings, encourage the eldest to do so quickly. They will be hurt if they feel they have been kept out of the loop for long. That puts a load on the eldest, but it is part of helping you through it - to which they are likely to be committed.

You will be surprised how much better you feel when they have all been told. Then, together, you can decide who else needs to know - and you can share out the task of telling them. Once the immediate family has been told and has begun to adjust, you will be surprised how easy it is to tell everyone else. And you will be amazed how fast news travels.