I have terminal cancer. I fear dying and leaving my daughter with my husband. What can I do? | Leading questions

Tell your husband the truth, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but start planning for a future in which he is unable to step up

I was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer three years ago, when my only child, a daughter, was eight. My cancer was discovered too late for a cure, ironically because I was in very good shape, a non-smoker, and otherwise in good health and a dedicated exerciser.

I will probably die within the next few years – I was initially given less than two years to live but have bucked the prognosis for now. I am in a treatment that has very severe side effects, key of which is extreme fatigue. Nonetheless, I try to make the best of it and exercise almost every day as a way to counteract the pain and fatigue.

My issue is my husband. He drinks excessively and has never exercised. Since the diagnosis, these issues have gotten worse to the point where he quit his job and spends most of his days on the internet. He refuses to take better care of himself, although he has tried to quit drinking multiple times to no avail. He is grumpy, depressed and very unpleasant to be around, not to mention a very bad example for our daughter. He is often very impatient with her and very short tempered. I am scared for her and any time I bring this up, he gets angry. Financially we are OK as I have a good disability plan and good insurance, but I worry for him and her future with him.

I fear dying and leaving her with this man. What can I do? If he is acting this way now, what will he do when my disease progresses to the point where I can’t function at such a high level (I currently do the majority of the household chores)? How do I get him to “grow up” and start taking better care of himself to ensure our daughter’s future?

Eleanor says: I am so sorry for what you have to bear. I am sorry for your pain, for your grief in missing what you’ve looked forward to, and most especially that you have to endure this without enough help from the person who should be your closest ally.

In answering your question, I wanted to speak to some grief counsellors to make sure you had their expertise. They said it sounds like your husband may be not processing his own grief terribly well – that alcohol, games or abandoning housework may be his way of retreating from the reality of your diagnosis. Many of us avoid thinking about death our whole lives because to do so risks total ruination; we pull away from friends who are bereaved or ill because we need the illusion of immortality to function. It may be that your husband’s slackness and irritability aren’t failures to realise what rests on his shoulders now but responses to realising it all too well. He may fear he’ll be crushed under its weight.

Your question was about how to influence him – “how do I get him to grow up?”

If his behaviour at the moment is a response to grief – depression or avoidance – then growing up may not be something you can make him do. You cannot lever him into the humility and commitment that real change requires; or into the realisation that however painful it is to face death, it will be less painful than the damage he may otherwise do. All you can do is bravely and candidly say what you have said to me – and it may be that as long as you don’t tell him this truth, he will not change. But this does not guarantee that he will change once you do.

So, if you’ll permit me, I think there is an equally pressing question alongside how to make him grow up – “What do I do if he won’t?”

Sometimes we ask for advice because we’re hoping that someone else will be able to see something in our situation that we haven’t; a concealed nook or passageway that gives us a way out without a painful conflict. But in this extraordinarily difficult situation, I think there’s no secret nook. The options are that he changes or that he doesn’t. If he doesn’t – you say you feel scared for your child. That is a terrible feeling. You say you fear leaving her “with this man”.

There will come a moment when you have to decide whether he has earned your trust to parent your only and beloved daughter. If he has not, the solution will be legal, custodial, and found with the help of your daughter and your family. You may need to seriously consider formalising a role for godparents, siblings, grandparents or other trusted adults in your daughter’s life, or leaving clear and written instructions to her about what she should not tolerate.

Try not to put off thinking through those possibilities because you are occupied with the hope that you can change your husband. You have already fronted up to some seriously tough realities, from the necessity of punishing treatments to the stony brutishness of insurance. If your husband is not able to be the father you need him to be, your bravery in facing that reality could be a shining gift to your daughter.

As anyone who has lost a loving parent knows, death need not divide us from a parent’s love. The world you leave for her can envelop her in your love, even when you cannot.

Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

  • If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here


Eleanor Gordon-Smith

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Deathly silence: 'How can I persuade my parents to have a practical conversation about mortality?'
When you talk about death you make it seem real, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, so find a more gentle way to frame the conversation

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

05, May, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
How do I get my husband to accept basic child safety measures, before someone gets hurt?
You shouldn’t treat this like an ordinary parenting dispute, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. This one involves lives and laws

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Leading questions: 'Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met?'
Ask yourself whether this is a person you want in your life, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and be prepared for the possibility of disappointment

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Jul, 2020 @1:32 AM

Article image
I love my daughter and my stepdaughter. How do we make our will fair to both of them? | Leading questions
Like kayaks and Ikea, wills can turn functional families into bickering messes, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. You’re right to proceed with care

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

27, Apr, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
I’m struggling to maintain friendships with people who have kids. How do I connect?
Staying connected through diverging experiences is difficult, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but doing so may future-proof your friendships

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

10, Nov, 2022 @11:55 PM

Article image
My son has not paid child support; I am very upset at his irresponsible attitude. What should I do?
It’s almost impossible to force someone into doing what we think they should, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but you can try to help him

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

12, Jan, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
'I’ve tried to raise my daughter with feminist values but I’m struggling with her clothes. What do I say?' | Leading questions
The cold truth is there’s nothing your daughter can wear to keep her safe, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. So give her the message the rest of the world won’t

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

03, Dec, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
I can’t have my mum in my life any more. But how do I actually walk away? | Leading questions
Nobody cuts their mother out lightly, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. You’ve already shown bravery to get to this point

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

21, Jul, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
My 39-year-old brother-in-law is dependent on his parents. What can we do?
Recognise that it is his problem, not yours, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon Smith. He will only change if he thinks he should

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

17, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
'It feels irresponsible to have a second child and yet I want one. How do I grapple with this?'
The time you most need a child’s input into what they want, they’re not here to ask, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon Smith. Life is uncertain – the question is whether it’s worth living anyway

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

21, May, 2020 @12:00 AM