Ask Dr. Giles: How frank should we be with our teenage sons?

Donata writes:

Dear Dr. Giles, First of all, I am sorry for the loss of your best friend to cc.My husband was dx. 9/07 & our life outlook has changed to say the least. I mean he has a wonderful attitude, positive ect. however I have a question regarding our 2 boys. Ages are 12 & 15, they know their Dad has cc, inoperable, being treated with chemotherapy weekly , however We have not yet told them the severity, nor do we know if we should. We we told 1-3yrs , however my husband does not want to have them worry, or have it effect their school life. I have mixed feelings about telling them & need advice. Family members have voiced concern that they might hear it outside the home as our community has a large benefit they are giving us & our sons are aware of & are to attend that night. Any advice from you would be so much appreciated.

I can see your dilemma. On one hand, your husband has three years or less to live and that feels like a significant reality to address. On the other hand, you don’t want your 12 and 15 year-old sons to be constantly distressed about their father’s condition.

This dilemma is based, in part, on the assumption that understanding the full ramifications of their father’s health circumstances will be a burden to your boys. I’m not sure that will be true. In fact, it is entirely possible that your boys sense they are not being told everything and that is proving to be a burden even now.

Your husband doesn’t want your sons to worry. That is an understandable parental concern. Worry, however, is based on what is not known. The key, then, for decreasing the odds that your boys will worry is to make the unknown known. By talking about the various scenarios which may play out in your husband’s remaining time, you will contribute to a sense of preparation rather than fear for your sons.

By talking openly, you are actively creating your own reality regarding your husband’s death, rather than reacting to death as a thing to avoid considering at all costs. I have heard it said that it is better to be the hammer than the nail. In other words, we humans do better when we chose to act rather than to be acted upon.

I think your sons are old enough to be told what there is to know. They may take it hard at first. Their grades and mood may suffer, but that is normal. Their reaction is an indication of how significant their father is to them. Would you really want them to be emotionally unaffected by the news that their father didn’t have long to live?

Finally, maintain a position of emotional availability to your sons. Give them ample opportunity to talk about what they think and feel about their father’s failing health. They will probably rarely take advantage of the opportunity, but every once in a while they may surprise you and you must be ready (hint: adolescents seem to be most ready to talk openly when it is an hour or two past the parents’ bedtime).

The time you and your sons have left with your husband should be spent loving and laughing and learning from each other. That is best done in an atmosphere of openness, devoid of fear.