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Timing a Pregnancy Announcement to a Sick Parent

Hi Amy,

I am hoping that you have advice for my situation, and at the same time, I hope that I am not dragging up any emotions, heartache, or anything else as I ask my question. You are one of the only people that I know (digitally or IRL), and I don’t know what to do.

My dad has been diagnosed with his 2nd form of cancer recently. He has not responded well to treatment and his oncologist has now told him that the oncologist can no longer treat my dad and that my dad needs to quit work. Like now.

So…Christmas is coming and that was already going to be fraught with high emotions and my family is phenomenal at suppressing those feelings until something (or alcohol) tips suppression into ‘ugly explosion’ of emotions (tears, yelling, etc).

My husband and I just found out (about 10 weeks) ago that we’re expecting our second child. After years, and years, and years of trying, medical interventions, etc. we had our first a year ago and are now expecting our second in June.

But…you see…there’s Dad. And the compressed timeline. And death looming on the horizon, just not quite as far away as you thought it was. We haven’t told my parents yet about baby #2, and were waiting to do the big reveal at Christmas. (We live a significant distance away and are flying in for the holidays). So…what do I do? Do I do the surprise early to buoy Dad’s spirits, do I wait and do it as planned…and then what do I do when the question comes up ‘will Dad make it to the birth of Baby #2?’.

Any advice you have would be much appreciated.

Thanks.

I am so, so sorry about your dad. So, so sorry.

(Some relevant background info for any newer readers: My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia right around the time I learned I was pregnant with baby #3. His prognosis was three to six months, and he did make to six…and passed away just three months before I gave birth. It was a terribly confusing, happy-sad, mixed-up time.)

There are no “right” answers to situations like this, and I also believe there are no real “wrong” answers, as terminal illness and death are just too nuanced and complicated for hard and fast rules or etiquette. Very few humans deal it all with particularly well, and we DEFINITELY don’t deal with it the exact same way as anybody else. So…go easy on yourself here, and try not to work yourself into a spiral of right vs. wrong and endless what-ifs.

You could absolutely tell your dad the news a bit early. You could also absolutely wait and go with the big holiday announcement as planned. It’s lovely, happy news either way. It really, really depends on your parents and the sort of relationship you have with them.

(I’m making the assumption — hopefully correctly — that while treatment is coming to an end, your father’s health is not so touch-and-go yet that there’s a high chance he won’t make it to Christmas. That would 1,000% change things here, but from multiple re-reads of your letter it sounds reasonably certain that he has more time than that, even if exactly how much “more” is unclear.)

If you think your parents are a bit too stunned/deer-in-the-headlights with the oncologist’s news right now, it might be kinder to not hurl anything else at them right now. Since yes, it’s lovely, happy news but admittedly shines a bit of a spotlight on any timeline/prognosis they are trying to adjust to or accept in the first place. If you think there’s a (perfectly normal) level of denial going on, or sense they might just prefer that everybody proceed as if nothing is happening or changing (ahhh, good ol’ suppressing emotions!), go ahead and stick with the original “Merry Christmas! It’s a grandbaby!” announcement.

On the other hand, if you think your parents are more of the “wow, we could REALLY use some good news right this very second,” they might really appreciate you sharing the news a bit early, in confidence. Maybe your dad would like to announce the news to the rest of the family on your behalf, if he’s the “I’d like to make a toast” type, or the family jokester who would love to pretend to let the news slip out by “accident” during Christmas dinner. Maybe his involvement in the announcement itself (and controlling the narrative a bit) will let him dictate the mood and circumvent some drunk family drama? If nothing else, maybe knowing your June due date will have some impact on any decisions they need to make right now as they consider whatever options they have.

(But again, we’re only talking a couple of weeks here at this point, and a couple of weeks that are also important to YOU. If you are not comfortable breaking the news to anyone before you’re out of the first trimester, that’s OKAY and FINE and ALLOWED.)

Personally, my parents were originally in that first category. There was a lot of denial. The doctors were wrong, the prognosis was just a vague sort of suggestion, the treatments would work, he’d show them, miracles are real, etc. And so, for awhile, we all sort of agreed to act accordingly, like this was just another pesky health issue my dad would beat like he beat all those other health issues. (And to be fair, he’d definitely beaten a LOT of other serious health problems.) And so my pregnancy was regarded as just this happy thing going on, and of course he’d make it to the birth! Like, duh. I kept all the updates perfectly routine and treated it like my other pregnancies.

At some point, yes, things shifted. Reality did start settling in and conversations got a lot more fraught. I had to talk them out of putting their house on the market while my dad was house-bound and the first floor was packed with hospital equipment and it was clear there was no way my dad could handle the stress of moving, even if the house did manage to sell quickly. (It did not.) I realized the odds of him making it to the birth were slim to none, but we still never really talked about that or addressed it head on. I gave him ultrasound photos and told him the baby’s name ahead of time, but up until the final weekend when he entered hospice, I know that man was still 100% determined and convinced that he was going to be around to meet Baby Ike in person.

Your experience will not be my experience. There are so many question marks dotting the horizon right now, and no one — not your family, the doctors, and certainly not me — can answer any of them definitively right now. Take them one at a time, and remember that like this question you sent me, there will rarely be a black-and-white, right-and-wrong answer. Remember that. Be kind to yourself. Focus on the time that is now and all the bittersweet moments that are left.

And in the near-final words of my go-to pregnancy/grief-cry movie Steel Magnolias: “Life goes on.”

So many, many hugs you to.

Photo source: Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash 

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