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I Prioritized My Kids’ Mental Health When My Husband was Diagnosed with Cancer

Monday, January 17, 2022

By Lynne

It was a routine colonoscopy, ordered because of my husband’s family history of cancer. I brought my laptop to the hospital so I could get some work done during his procedure, annoyed that he’d scheduled it during my busiest work season. But I forgave him immediately when the doctor came to the waiting room to get me.

“Let’s talk together with your husband,” he said.

Before we knew it was a rare and slow-growing form of cancer — and that it had already metastasized from his colon to his liver — all we could take in was that it was serious, possibly fatal. As a couple, we processed the treatment options: resection, ablation, chemotherapy.

As parents, all we could think about was how it would impact our seventeen-year-old son who was applying to college, auditioning for music programs. And our twenty-year-old daughter who was already in college, coping with the rigors of her education and navigating life on her own.

Like Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. I was a teenager when my father died of a heart attack at age forty-seven while on a business trip with my mother. For hundreds of nights, I watched my mother fall asleep on the couch because she couldn’t face going up to their room or sleeping in their bed. I spent my final high school years trying to get her to eat a meal or change out of her robe, squeezing in school work and play rehearsals around my need to go home to check on her.

After my father died, complicated grief triggered mental health issues in some of my family members that have echoed over the years. When I considered that half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders begin by age 14, three-quarters by age 24, and that on average, families suffer in silence or ignore symptoms for two to four years, I knew I needed to be proactive with my mental health and protective when it came to my children’s mental health.

I knew that if I didn’t use my heartbreaking experience, and what scientists tell us about the neuroscience of emotion, my husband’s illness could have a cascade effect on our children’s lives, impacting their mental health for years to come.

I couldn’t shield my family from the stress we would face as my husband’s health crisis played out, but neither could I ignore it, potentially fueling the risk for mental health or addiction issues for any one of us. My mother did the best she could in the aftermath of my father’s death. But having experienced feeling adrift as a teenager, I needed to handle my family crisis differently.

So we talked about it. Openly and often. With each other and with trained counselors.

At the outset, I made my children a promise. “I will never lie to you. I’ll tell you everything. Good news and bad. You’ll never have to worry that we’re keeping things from you. We know you can handle it.”

As much as I wanted to remind them I believed in their resilience, I also wanted them to know I was someone who was striving to be an honest confidant.

When I asked my son how he was managing at some point later in my husband’s treatment, he said, “I’m okay because you said he’s getting better. I trust that you’re telling me the truth.”

As treatment extended beyond weeks into months, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I asked my friends and my children’s closest ones to keep their eyes on them. I didn’t minimize how serious or difficult coping with a life-threatening illness is on the other members of a family.

Though it was a challenge, we kept to our regular routines. Family dinners. Summer vacations. In these ordinary and familiar moments we made space for authentic emotional expression. Sometimes we talked about what was happening to us, most times we didn’t. Being together, laughing and connecting, was enough. Resilience in the face of adversity doesn’t come to any of us by chance. It comes by way of profound connections.

When the time came to drop our son off at college, I was happy for him and truly enjoyed the day. Then, walking back to the car with my husband, I lost it.

“The empty nest thing is hitting you hard,” he said.

I didn’t tell him the real reason I was crying: for a long time, I’d thought I’d be dropping off our son by myself, as a widow.

It’s been ten years since my husband’s cancer went into remission. My children are now adults with relationships and families of their own. Individually, we’ve had our moments, our private struggles. Collectively, we’re still open about the fear that brought us low and how little things can sometimes trigger overwhelming memories of that frightening time. Though we experienced it from different points of view, we acknowledge it will forever be part of our personal stories.

Like ocean waves, my mother’s coping had an effect on mine. Still, whenever I’m faced with inescapable fear, I tell myself, “That was then. This is now.”

Interrupting the cascade effect isn’t about rejecting past experience or repressing emotion. It’s about allowing the feelings to come and go, to arise and pass without them overtaking you. And it’s easier to face the tides wholeheartedly in connection with others. No one is free from what came before. But we can be wiser for it.


Lynne Griffin is an internationally recognized family counselor, public speaker, teacher, and writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Parents, Psychology Today, Solstice Literary Magazine, Chautauqua Journal, Craft Literary, Fiction Writers Review, Brain, Child, and more. She regularly appears as a media guest expert to discuss contemporary family life and preventive mental health, with recent appearances on WBUR’s Morning Edition and WCVB’s Chronicle. Lynne is the author of the family-focused novels, Life Without Summer (St. Martin’s Press), Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster), and Girl Sent Away (SixOneSeven Books), and the nonfiction parenting title Negotiation Generation (Penguin). As Lynne Reeves she also writes novels of domestic suspense, with The Dangers of an Ordinary Night published by Crooked Lane Books in November 2021.