This personal essay in The Atlantic raises a difficult ethical question. The author and his wife found out that she had about three years to live, but didn’t tell their three young children because they didn’t want them to worry. So they knew she had cancer and that it had returned, but didn’t know it was terminal. The good news is that she wound up living for 10 years, and her children all say they are glad they didn’t know, because they would have worried too much. But it’s still a really tough question. Shouldn’t they have known the truth?
My father died of cancer, and he refused to talk about his prognosis because he didn’t want to dwell on the negative — he wanted to focus on getting better (which was never really an option). I respected his choice, but it meant that we couldn’t really talk about his eventual death, or what would happen afterwards, or even about his life, because to do so was to acknowledge what he didn’t want to talk about. I wish we had had the ability to do that, but then I wasn’t a young child, so my perspective is probably significantly different.
We decided not to tell the kids. Marla knew that once our three daughters understood that their mother had been given 1,000 days to live, they’d start counting. They would not be able to enjoy school, friends, their teams, or birthday parties. They’d be watching too closely—how she looked, moved, acted, ate, or didn’t. Marla wanted her daughters to stay children: unburdened, confident that tomorrow would look like yesterday.