Ask Fiona: I'm distraught as I don't know how to tell my children I have a terminal illness

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers guidance to a mum who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness

Talking about your own death is something most people try to avoid – especially with children

I'M married and have two young children who are 11 and nine. I've been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness and my husband and I are trying to deal with the shock. We don't really know how long I've got left but while I'll probably be around for this Christmas, it doesn't look likely I'll make the next one. We plan to tell our children – and the rest of our family too, but I'm worried about how I should go about it.

I also want to make sure that when the time comes everything is in place and my husband and family don't have to worry about things.

These conversations aren't going to be easy and nor are the plans I shall have to make so I could really do with help and support.

I would really like to find someone who can help me – not with the illness, I know my doctor, the hospital and ultimately, the hospice will help with that.

What I need is some guidance on how to plan ahead.

Are there any tips on the best ways to make these conversations easier?


FIONA SAYS: I'm so very sorry to hear about your illness – it must be very difficult for you, especially as you have young children. Talking about death is hard for most people and talking about your own death is something most people try to avoid.

None the less, I would urge you to start having these difficult conversations as soon as possible as your children will almost certainly have picked up a change in atmosphere at home. They may already be anxious about this as they don't know what is causing things to feel different.

I suggest you keep things simple to start off with because they will have questions they want to ask. It could be that their questions may seem to be callous and selfish - "Who will take me to football on Saturdays?" for example.

Such questions are probably just their way of masking much deeper concerns so go with them, without feeling hurt. It might help them – and your husband – if you make your ideas and your plans known – and that means talking things through very clearly. Please don't assume that, because he knows about your terminal illness before everyone else, your husband knows what to do and what you want – you need to talk things through with him, too.

The charity and support organisation for people with terminal illnesses - Marie Curie - have masses of information on their website ( that I think you'll find really helpful.

They have recognised how important it is to talk and have a whole new section called "Talkabout" ( that helps to lead you through the process.

There is even a whole section about talking to children and there's a useful checklist to help you get started with some of the things you could do to plan ahead. Talking to family members and friends will also be difficult.

You may find some people try and dismiss what you want to say to them – that's their own fears, it's not personal, so try not to let it upset you.

As part of their website Marie Curie will be hosting regular podcasts where celebrities discuss their experiences of death, dying and bereavement. There are also conversation playing cards with questions to help you talk and which ask questions you may not have thought about. For now – and with whatever physical resources you have available to you – make memories for your children.

You might consider writing letters for them to open at important times in their lives or perhaps making a video they can watch.

All these, and more, suggestions are on the Marie Curie site and I hope you find them helpful. No-one can take away the pain and emotional distress you are bound to be feeling right now but I do hope that, by talking to people you love and care about, you find it a little easier.


WHENEVER he does anything wrong, my boyfriend manages to twist the situation and blame someone else. Usually he becomes so adamant that he's not to blame that he convinces people – even me sometimes – that he's right. I've even taken the blame sometimes to avoid any angry outburst that follows any suggestion he's at fault but I'm beginning to resent this and wonder if I am doing the right thing.

If I make a mistake, I admit it immediately and try to learn from what I've done so why can't he?


FIONA SAYS: People who immediately blame others in situations like this typically do so to mask their own insecurities.

While your boyfriend's bluff and bluster may seem harmless to some, it's not fun if you're on the receiving end of it.

You've now set yourself up as a target by accepting the blame for his mistakes so, if you want to stop it, you need to break this cycle.

Stop taking the blame for his mistakes and instead, point out clearly and calmly when it's his error.

You may not like the resulting behaviour but if other people keep covering for him, he will never learn. He could do with counselling or psychotherapy to help him with his insecurities, but I suspect he would struggle to agree to this.

If you care for him though, I would encourage this regardless of his reaction.

However, if his behaviour continues you really need to consider if you want to continue with this relationship.


Some good friends invited us for lunch the other Sunday and we had to refuse as we'd already accepted another invitation.

They asked us to pop in on them for tea on the way back, which we did.

We'd been at a loud, jolly lunch so when we arrived at our friends' house that afternoon, we bounced in full of laughter and good cheer.

I suppose we tried to liven them up a bit, but they didn't respond, and we left shortly after.

I sent her an email, thanking her for the tea but she didn't respond, and I'm worried we may have upset them, somehow.

How should I handle this?


FIONA SAYS: I would suggest you pick up the phone as soon as you can and ask them if everything is OK. It's possible that they had news of some kind that they wanted to talk to you about; it's possible that they were just tired that day. Either way, leaving things unsaid makes the chasm between you wider and more difficult to bridge.

Just say something to the effect that it was lovely to see them, and you hope you weren't a bit much as you'd arrived in such high spirits. If there was something they wanted to say, this would give them the chance to open up. In future though, remember it's all too easy to overwhelm a quiet gathering so, when stepping into someone else's world, try to aim to fit in comfortably, not disrupt it.


MY friend and I both work as volunteers for a charitable organisation. She's only recently started but I've been there for years.

They had a "do" the other month which I was invited to but, as I knew it was only for long-term volunteers, I didn't say anything to my friend about it. The trouble is my photo appeared in the charity's newsletter and now she's upset with me. Since then she's been making digs about not being able to trust friends, but I only didn't tell her because I didn't want her to feel upset. Why can't she see this and forget about it?


FIONA SAYS: Have you sat her down and explained the circumstances to her? Perhaps all she needs is an explanation. Point out that far from meaning to hurt her, you were trying to avoid upsetting her feelings and that you don't want this incident to spoil your friendship. If she's a genuine friend she should be able to forgive you, after all, she should not expect to be party to everything you do.

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