Dear Emuna,

I am a 56-year-old mother of seven kids, two married and five still living at home. I have just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s in the early stage and the prognosis is good, please God. I’d really like to avoid telling my children altogether because I know it will make them anxious but I will have to have a number of medical procedures and they will know something is going on. How do you suggest I handle this?

Solicitous Mom

Dear Solicitous,

Oh gosh! I wish you had just written to me with a marriage problem! I pray that your doctor is correct and that you should have a refuah shelaimah, a complete healing. While I totally sympathize with your desire to spare your children (you don’t mention their ages; do you have some very young ones who wouldn’t have the ability to understand this?), I don't think it’s really fair to them. And ultimately to you.

They care about you and will want to take care of you – in whatever ways that are available to them – from prayers to grocery shopping to cooking to household chores to waiting on you if you are laid up in bed. Even though you are the mom and you are used to being the giver, it is good for them to have an opportunity to give back, to take care of you, to express their love and concern. You don’t want to rob them of that opportunity. And you don’t want to deny yourself the pleasure of experiencing their solicitousness of you.

Even in the midst of your discomfort and anxiety, you will be able to enjoy the loving, caring and united family that you have created. It’s always good to let people give to us, and our children even more so. And it’s always productive to learn to be a taker – to experience it from the other side and to learn to do it graciously. It helps us empathize with those that we are always taking care of, to see their dependence from their uneasy perspective.

Although it requires greater effort and sensitivity, I think our role as a parent demands that we reveal the particulars of this situation to our family.

It’s also, I would venture to say, not appropriate or fair to treat your children like infants. Family secrets are corrosive. To be left out of something so important diminishes their role in the family, infantilizes them and communicates that you don’t believe they are mature enough, smart enough, strong enough to handle the information.

Although it requires greater effort and sensitivity, I think our role as a parent demands that we reveal the particulars of this situation to our family. You don’t have to tell them every gruesome or private detail but a general picture – and an overview of what they can expect. They need to prepare themselves – emotionally and perhaps physically. And you need to prepare yourself as well. You don’t want to add to your own psychological burden the necessity of tiptoeing around your family and keeping the whole situation a closely-guarded secret.

I think after the tears and the fears and the late night chats and all the questions and answers, you will feel relief. You will not have to face this alone. And it won’t be a source of embarrassment or relegated to a “dirty little secret.” And why should it be? Families and individuals are capable of lifting up to the demands of the situation they are placed in. In fact, it’s at those moments that our mettle is tested and our true strengths are discovered.

And you don’t want to put the entire burden on your husband. He can’t be simultaneously at your bedside, watching the kids, looking after meals, cleaning the house, making Shabbos – at least I’ve never met the man (or woman!) who could. And why should he? This is your family’s moment to shine. Take some time to think out what you want to say and how to say. Then take a deep breath, bite the bullet and share your news. Then let your breath out as your family brainstorms together ways to cope and sets up a regular time to storm the heavens en masse.

We know that life’s challenges are blessings in disguise. I don’t advise looking for that in the moment but I do expect that letting your children participate in the process may be a first step in seeing some good come out of the seeming bad.