Ask Dr. Giles: My husband's adult children don't get it.

Joan writes:

My husband & I have been married 7 years and he has 5 grown kids (27-36 yrs old) from a previous marriage. Recently, after being diagnosed (8/07) with cholangiocarcinoma we retired & moved to from NJ where all his kids live to our “dream” island of Hilton Head, SC. My husband is now quite ill with the disease. His kids call him often to “chat” but do not take any interest or concern in his condition. They think meditation, positive thinking, accupuncture etc. will help him. And, most distressfully they have not come down to see him since we moved here 6/08. They all love him very much but are yuppies and very much into their own lives. I am so angry as I see what my husband is going through 24/7. My husband is not one to “have words” with his kids. I realize they either “don’t get it” or don’t care “to get it”. When I mention to them, only occasionally through e-mail how poorly their Dad is doing, I get no response. What position/roll should I take with them? Thank you.


This is a common situation for people who are close to someone with cancer: they are keenly aware of the suffering of the loved one, but they are also keenly aware that others don’t “get it.” That is, others aren’t recognizing, acknowledging, or responding to the reality of the struggle for the one who has cancer.

Sometimes others don’t recognize, acknowledge, or respond because they feel powerless to help. They don’t know how to cure cancer and don’t have medical expertise so they feel there is nothing they can do to help. What they don’t realize is that their simple acknowledgment and expression of concern is the most important thing they can do. People with cancer don’t need more doctors, they need more friends!

Sometimes others don’t recognize, acknowledge, or respond because they don’t know how to deal with the uncertainty of the situation: is he going to get worse or better? Do we talk about the possibility that he might die, or do should we refuse to even consider that outcome? Do I treat him like he’s dying or like he’s going to live to be 100 years old?

Sometimes others don’t recognize, acknowledge, or respond because they don’t know how to deal with their own feelings of loss. As you know, it takes energy to deal with loss and they may be waiting for the “right time” to deal with their father’s serious illness and the fact that he may die from it.

In any case, a good first step is to share your observations of the situation with your children–perhaps beginning with the child who you think will be most open to this kind of discussion. Share with him or her your observation that there appears to be little response from the children about their father’s illness. Share your speculation–in the most understanding and diplomatic way–about why this may be so, and then ask for your child’s thoughts. After your child has shared his or her thoughts, describe the emotional impact of your children’s approach to their father’s illness. Tell him or her how you and your husband are feeling as a result of how the children are handling their father’s illness (e.g., overlooked, neglected, etc.). Ask your child what they think you should do next to make the rest of the family aware of the problem.

The most important thing to do is to begin engage your children in ongoing dialogue about the situation on two levels–the level of the specifics of their father’s health, but also on the level of the dynamics of a family who is dealing with a potential loss. Asking questions which prompt discussion and spending most of the time listening will probably be the best approach for you to take.