I am a 48-year-old divorced father of two. My children (13 and 18) have lived with me since the divorce, as their mother is constantly in and out of psychiatric hospitals, so there isn't much of a stable mother figure for them. My problem is that I have terminal cancer. It's inoperable and essentially untreatable (according to all of the doctors that have reviewed my case), but I have maybe five or six years before the effects of the cancer are debilitating. I have not informed anyone of my medical situation, although I have known the diagnosis for several years. My children are very sensitive and were devastated by the divorce (six years ago), and my oldest suffers from depression. I fear telling them, as it may upset them too much, but it's getting more difficult to act as if nothing is wrong. I get tired easily and can't do the more active things they want to do anymore. Since my ex-wife is not really an option as a support mechanism for my children, and their extended family lives quite a distance away, I'm at a loss about creating a safe, supportive environment. My youngest should be at least 18 when I can no longer care for them, but I worry about them not having a reliable parent while in college and early in their postgraduate lives. Is it better to tell them now and have all of us learn to live with the eventuality, or should I wait until my health deteriorates more and my youngest is older and (hopefully) more capable of dealing constructively with the situation?
I am so sorry about what you and your children are facing. I'm sure you feel they have had enough pain in their lives, and it's understandable that you want to protect them as long as you can from what's coming. But they surely suspect something is wrong, and as terrible as your news is, they need to hear from you what's really going on. You also say you haven't told anyone else. This is too much of a burden for you to bear alone. Your friends can be a resource—from just listening to your worries to pitching in with your kids. And even if your extended family is far away, it's time to include them in what's happening. I hope you have many, many years ahead of you, but there is time now to start making stronger connections with your family so your children feel they aren't so alone. Also consider seeing a counselor with your children. Perhaps there is a clergy member you feel comfortable with. The Psychology Today Web site has a referral page that allows you to look up practitioners in your area who have experience dealing with loss and grief. Please get help from as many sources as you can. It will be a relief for you not to feel you must deal with everything alone.