Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas


Dear Virginia,

I'm a single parent and my son is 23. He recieved a very poor degree from his university and is struggling to find a job. He's also recently been dumped by his girlfriend and is feeling very depressed - he lives in a house with some friends. My problem is that I have just discovered I have cervical cancer. No one can tell me what my chances are of survival. I have a supportive group of friends but I just don't know whether to tell my son. I don't want to add to his worries. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Catrin

Virginia says... You wouldn't take a stake away from a weak plant without, I hope, making sure there was some other support in place. So before you tell your son, I think you should confide in someone – obviously his father, if you're in touch with him, or his grandparents, or even a friend who he regards as some kind of aunt-figure. Some who has known him all his life. Even better, confide in two such characters, and tell them both that you're relying on them to look after your son emotionally not only while you're ill but also, if it comes to that, for as long as they can.

And then you must tell your son himself. He'll be distressed, of course, but not half as distressed if he thought you couldn't confide in him. Imagine if you suddenly died and he found that everyone knew except him. He'd feel not only betrayed by his girlfriend but also one of the people he's probably closest to in his whole life.

And however well you feel you know your son, you have no idea how he's going to react to the news. It's true, he might go to pieces, but on the other hand, he might come into his own. Your illness might be a rallying point for him, a time when he realises that he can't depend on you any more, and that now he has to be the strong one.

It may be that he will grow emotionally out of this experience, whatever the outcome, and the fact that he'll be needed now might, instead of reducing him to a heap, actually make him feel better about himself.

You have no idea until you tell him.

Obviously it would be best not to confide your wildest fears to him. Don't throw yourself sobbing at his feet. But it's no bad thing for a child of your son's age to see that a parent can be vulnerable on some occasions. There will probably be some point in his life, even if you live to a great age, that you will have to depend on him to some extent, and there is no "good time" for this to happen.

Tell him honestly what's going on at every stage and try to keep as calm as you can. If he wants to, let him come with you to see the doctors and have a chance to ask his own questions. Give him some control.

All this might be a lesson for him, not only in how to live, but also in how to face death, even if as of course I hope, it doesn't come to it.

Readers say…

Tell him gently

Sit your son down and gently tell him that you have cancer; he will want to support you – you may well discover he has hidden depths. Your son has friends so he is obviously highly regarded despite his depression. Perhaps approach one of his friends and ask him/her to be supportive. Make sure your financial affairs are in order but stress survival rates for cancer are high these days.

Marie T Hale

By email

He's an adult

Catrin, your son has legally been in the adult world since he was 18. It is time to treat him with maturity and inform him of your condition. We all have to come to terms with bad news of our loved ones; the sooner you tell him, the longer he will have to adjust to the situation. What a shock it would give him if you were rushed to hospital, or have to undergo debilitating therapies, and he was unprepared. You cannot protect your son for ever from life's realities. For him, it may put his own problems into perspective.



Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I was very unhappy when my boyfriend of three years suddenly dropped me. It's taken me six months to get over him and I still don't feel I've recovered. I really thought we might get married. Now I've got a new boyfriend, whom I like a lot and who's very kind and considerate and we get on really well. In many ways he's a nicer person than my old boyfriend, but I still hanker after him.

My old boyfriend got in touch recently and said he'd made a terrible mistake and wanted to get back together. Do you think I should risk it? I feel so torn – I can't stop thinking about him!

Yours sincerely,


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