How do I tell my son I need a break from my grandsons during my husband's final days with lung cancer?

4 answers | Last updated: Dec 14, 2010
A fellow caregiver asked...

My husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer this past September. We have been told that his days with us will be shorter rather than longer. On the same exact day, my daughter-in-law told my son she wanted a divorce. He seems to have my 2 grandsons most of the time and they do spend quite a bit of time here. Here's my problem, how do I let him know that I just need some adult time especially when we have family visit from out-of-town and not always have the grandsons here? I am afraid this is going to be a bone of contention between the two of us as I need some time to talk about anything and everything with other adults and not constantly be in the caretaking mode either with my husband or my son and grandsons. I feel like I am starting to lose it.

Expert Answers

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

It sounds like you are a very caring person, but with too much on your plate. It is unfortunate your son has not recognized he is asking too much of you, but generally we see what we want to see. He sees that there are times you enjoy your grandsons, then may tell himself it is as good for you as it is for his for his sons. He doesn't seem to recognize that like anyone else, you must have time to take care of your own needs or you will not have the energy you need to manage in this very difficult time.

Someone is going to have to initiate an honest discussion to help your son understand your limits. While it may have to be you, I would recommend you consider having someone else cover you on this one. It would be ideal if it was someone you and your son both trust, perhaps your husband, if he is up to it, or some other relative, a close family friend, a clergy person or a physician. Hopefully that will get a clear message to your son without the risk of you offending him. On the other hand, if there is not an ideal person or if someone has such a discussion and it doesn't help, you may need to have a frank discussion with him yourself. It may help if someone is there with you to support you, but most important you can tell him clearly you love him and his children, but for the moment you need his assistance in maintaining your mental health. I would suggest you give him a clear understanding of what you would like him to do. How much time would you like to spend with him and his sons, and how much is too much? Under what specific circumstances should he not bring his sons to your home? Should he always call first? In the end, it will be important to work out a very clear understanding between the two of you. Hopefully this can be a learning experience for him. As children we think of our parent's as superhuman and part of maturation is recognizing they too need watering time.

Community Answers

Tea mcalpin answered...

I was just involved with a patient who had the same problem. Her son was a single dad and father of two young boys. As her caregiver and home health CNA, she asked that I say something to him about the time and effort it took to care for them all day and her husband too. She was against offending him and she thought he should just "know" without being told.He didn't. The conversation went well and he enrolled them in daycare. If you have a caregiver, ask him or her. Most of us have had experience with this issue.

Galowa answered...

Dear Anon,

Please accept my sincere condolences on your husband's terminal illness. I cannot imagine the weight you are carrying, but I imagine that you are carrying that weight with a great deal of courage and grace.

This capacity of yours to make it appear that you are managing to cope and bearing up under the hardships in your life may be one reason your son is not more sensitive to your needs. However you actually feel, perhaps the problem is that you make it LOOK too easy. So don't blame your son. Remember that he has not only recently lost his own spouse, but is now faced with losing his father as well.

Though he is still your son, he is no longer a CHILD. He is a MAN with children of his own. If anything, HE should be among the adults who are present with you in your husband's final weeks or months. Sit him down and talk to him like the man he now is. Rather than supporting him, try confiding in him and relying upon him.

You are exhausted, grieving, in shock, and overwhelmed. You need your son to spend some time supporting YOU so you can support your husband. Also, this will enable him to find the strength and the time to say goodbye to his father.

The issue of your grandchildren will arise naturally once you begin to relate to your son on this level, and the talk you need to have about caring for your grandchildren will come easily.

Your exhaustion may have caused you to overlook the most compelling reason for your son to find ANYONE, other than yourself, to care for your grandchildren... Depending on their ages, it may not be appropriate for your grandchildren to spend too much time in the "sick-room" environment which terminal cancer invites (and inevitably creates.)

They may not be able to understand what is going on, but believe me, they ARE aware that something is wrong... How this affects them, at their given ages, is unknown, but to be witnessing the gradual loss of a beloved grandfather right on the heels of having been essentially abandoned by their mother cannot be good.

What EVERYONE ELSE NEEDS, is the exact same thing that YOU need. As a result, your son... your loving, grief-stricken, and very confused son, should understand right away.

I hope this helps. My thoughts are with you.

All good wishes,




Jade1961 answered...

Dear Anon: Hi, my name is Jade & I am the leader of the Erie County Cancer Killers a LIVESTRONG Army that is an integral part of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. We have what you need. At LIVESTRONG there are people trained to help you, your husband & your son as well as the grand kids get through this. We usually step in when someone is first diagnosed however we can be there for you at any point of this journey. It is not just your husbands journey, as unfortunately you are finding out. This is also a journey for you & your son. I don't think your son is being malicious or anything of that nature. He knows what is going on with his Dad and perhaps he sees this as his way of coping with the inevitable outcome. I would imagine that he hopes that by seeing his grandchildren perhaps his Dad will get better. It can happen ... nothing is ever carved in stone when it comes to cancer. I am a cancer survivor, two times, the first time I lost my ability to have any more children as they had to remove my uterus as well as my ovaries. The second time I was told I had 18months to live, to get my affairs in order and find a good place for my son to grow up and be raised the way I would raise him or want him raised. Well, I am still here 11 years in remission from Multiple Myeloma this month. I guess my first question for you is have you gotten Hospice involved? They can be a wonderful advocate for you when it comes to talking to your son. If you don't know where to contact then I recommend that you get in touch with the LIVESTRONG team of the Lance Armstrong Foundation either on their website which is: or you can call their help line at 1-866-673-7205 they are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT. If you leave a message or fill out the intake form at: they will respond within 48 hours. I understand what you are going through at a very personal level as I have lost two family members to cancer, neither was easy, both hurt my heart deeply and both made me very angry. But, we can help you with that too. Please take a moment to watch this video, It tells you what we are all about better than I can in this short space:

Or This one:

I will keep you & your husband as well as the rest of your family in my prayers & if you need help respond to this post I will gladly give you my personal e-mail. I do have to agree with Galowa on the statement regarding your son's grief as well, the two of you could and should be supporting each other. I wish I knew where you were so I could get someone to you more quickly. Please make the call come Monday Morning & Get some help from LIVESTRONG ... that is what we are here for. Depending on the age of the grand kids we even have "comic" style books that can help explain what is happening to their Grandfather.

God Bless & LIVESTRONG! Jade