How to navigate end-of-life communications between estranged family members?
December 7, 2012 1:23 PM Subscribe
Elderly mom is ill. If it looks like she's not going to make it should I tell her estranged daughter (my semi-estranged sister) despite the risk of an ugly scene ensuing?
posted by under_petticoat_rule to Human Relations (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My mother is 85. I just found out from my oldest sister (let's call her Georgette) that mom is in the hospital with some as-yet unidentified digestive tract ailment. She might recover completely, but she is at an age where I need to start considering what to do when she gets into an end-of-life process.
Georgette is 65, I'm 48. Our other sister (let's go with Angela for her fake name) is 50.
tl;dr version: If/when mom is on her way out of this world, should I tell Angela (who has been estranged from mom for nearly two decades and from whom I am mostly estranged) so she can have the opportunity for closure despite the very real possibility that contact between her and mom could become an ugly, painful experience?
My family is mostly estranged. Parents divorced in the late '70s. Georgette was already living on her own before then. Angela and I stayed with our mom and saw our dad every couple weeks or so. No overt abuse or anything, but dad was a passive-aggressive robot who didn't know how to relate to kids, and mom was always stressed trying to care and provide for two kids. She's also a self-absorbed narcissist. She's alo a high-functioning alcoholic (bizarrely, none of my siblings or I demonstrate any alcoholic tendencies). A lot of people had much worse childhoods/adolescnces, but growing up was pretty stressful for all of us in the family. Dad passed away in 2003.
Angela and my mom never got along. In junior high and high school this escalated into out and out hostility. Later it got worse, and the relationship pretty much broke permanently when Angela slapped my mom in the face and stormed out after an argument.
Angela has been treated for schizophrenia. I don't know if she's currently being treated. After several instances of her hostile behavior toward me over the years I decided I didn't feel safe around her and didn't want her in my life. We were forced back together when dad died and we had to sort out his estate. Everything was fine until she just couldn't handle the harmonious situation we three siblings were involved in, so she manufactured some drama which re-alienated me.
Facebook has provided the perfect level of interaction - we can feel connected and make clever comments on eachother's posts but we don't need to engage on any level that involves any real vulnerability. It seems from my limited perspective that she is pretty stable at present.
Georgette and I have typically been peacemakers in the family and tried to maintain relations with everyone (I finally gave up on Angela after the incidents I alluded to above). Angela and my mom have not spoken or had any interaction for the last 18 years (or more).
All three of us have had periods of up to 5 years where we have not had any interaction with my mom. Mom is opinionated, judgmental and difficult. She will find a way to argue with you even if you are explicitly agreeing with her. She craves attention from us, but demonstrates no interest in us, our lives or activities. She is unwilling to accept any responsibility for the state of relations in the family and punishes anyone who dares stand up for themselves with guilt and the silent treatment, casting herself as a martyr.
A few years ago Angela asked me to let her know if mom came down with any ailment or disease that might be hereditary or run in families. Her request was absolutely one of self-interest - she wanted to be made aware of anything that might be an issue in her own health. My feeling on the matter was that if she wanted that kind of information she should undertake to develop at least a civil relationship with mom. I didn't commit to telling her anything and I didn't share my feelings with her because there is no upside to engaging with her on anything of importance.
Georgette and I don't know what's wrong with mom right now, and it may turn out that she'll recover and live many more years. It may turn out that she has entered the path out of this world. We just don't know yet. In any case, we are now faced with the question of how much to tell Angela and when.
On the one hand, it would be awful to deprive Angela of the possibility of any kind of final contact and possibly some measure of mutual forgiveness with mom. On the other hand, given Angela's need to create drama and tension even where none exists, and her and mom's mutual button-pushing abilities and stubbornness, it's equally possible that any contact between them would turn hostile and just make things worse for everyone.
We could let mom decide whether we tell Angela anything, but if mom had her way Georgette and I wouldn't even know she had been hospitalized (she hates seeming weak). And while I would respect her wishes regarding any contact with Angela, I feel on some level that Angela should know if mom is about to die, if for no other reason than it would be less of a blow to her than just getting a call saying "Mom died."
I don't feel especially responsible for worrying about the feelings of these people, but I'm in a position where I have some knowledge that others might benefit from knowing, so I do have to make a decision about whether to share it. I don't see any choice that won't be perceived by someone as meddling or assholish, but even deciding not to take action is a choice so I am forced to at least figure out which kind of asshole I'd prefer to be perceived as.
So my questions are, does the risk of enabling a hostile encounter between a dying parent and her estranged daughter outweigh the potential benefit of informing said daughter? Should I tell Angela what's going on so she has a chance to possibly... not reconcile, that's too strong, but at least have a civil interaction and maybe get some closure? Or do I just step back, realize that these two adults are responsible for their own relationship and just let Angela know when/if mom dies?
From a more abstract perspective, between two awful people, who is more deserving of protection: the one who's dying, since dying sucks and it should be made as easy as possible, or the one who's not dying because they'll have to live with whatever happens?