I’m not sure there is anything that can prepare you for delivering heartbreaking news to your children. It was November 2011 and I knew there was something very wrong with Jason, my husband. I had been joking around for two weeks telling him he probably had leukaemia, never dreaming that it could be possible. I don’t think I can even describe the moment we heard the news that he had an aggressive (but very treatable) type of leukaemia. Treatable IF HE SURVIVED the first month. This would end up being touch and go for him. He would go on to spend five weeks in isolation in hospital for his first round of treatment; six months with daily 6-8 hourly treatments as an outpatient; two years of weekly medications; and THEN it would be seven years until he could be counted as one of the lucky ones who was completely cleared.
That first night Jason was kept in hospital, I had to deliver the news to our four daughters aged 1, 3, 5, 7 as to why their dad wasn’t coming home. Thoughts fly through your head as to how to deliver this kind of news… I wanted to be truthful, yet hopeful, and I definitely wanted them to feel secure in love in an uncertain time. So I chose to tell them the absolute truth. That their Dad was very sick and could die but hopefully he wouldn’t. And that, no matter what, we would be OK and we have a big family and lots of friends who will always be there for us. This went better than expected!
The Leukaemia Foundation gave me a children’s picture book to read to the girls explaining all the symptoms and what was happening in kid language. This book would end up falling to pieces as they poured over the pages over the next few months. I also bought them each a journal which had a space to draw a picture and a space to write about what they had drawn. This was so valuable! They could express how they were feeling and I could keep an eye on their internal thinking.
The greatest gift I received during this time was my parents, who dropped everything in their lives and became our children’s main carers. I moved in with them as their house was closer to the hospital than ours. This meant I was able to spend the days with Jason and could see the kids for a few minutes at breakfast and bedtime. We tried to keep things as stable as possible for them.
They each dealt with the situation differently. My eldest worked hard to look after her sisters, was very strong and didn’t once cry. She was very controlled and held everything in. My second was emotional and wanted to talk through everything. My third moved on pretty quick and asked my dad if she could now call him dad instead of grandad. And my youngest didn’t seem bothered by it at all; she just enjoyed the holiday at her grandparents’ house.
Everyone experiences feelings differently and there’s no right or wrong way to handle these unexpected life events. Just do the best that you can, ask for help when you need it and allow yourself grace to feel all the emotions, which often catch you off guard.
My only regret during this time was one night when Jason wanted me to sit with him and I didn’t. I left him, upset, scared and lonely in a hospital room. I put pressure on myself to be there for both him and the girls and, in that moment, I thought I was needed more at home and yet I will always regret it. He can’t remember this moment at all but, for me, I will always remember the look in his eyes and still wish I had stayed!
We would never have chosen this to happen to our family but we are grateful for so many things that have come out of it. It has changed our priorities and perspective on life, strengthened relationships, and we have a new compassion for those with cancer.
My advice would be to trust yourself to make the right decisions for your family and work to have as few regrets as possible.