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What to say to a dying relative with a fractured relationship?
February 25, 2013 9:30 AM   Subscribe

My uncle is dying - the doctor says days or weeks. I haven't said anything to him, or his wife, or his kids, since they got the cancer diagnosis a few months ago. Our families have had a historically fractured relationship, so it all feels very awkward to me. Please help me figure out what to appropriately say to them.

My parents came from very mixed backgrounds (different religions, continents, cultures, both immigrants), and this was a significant source of tension for how my mom's family received my dad and my mom's choices. I was 5 years old when we moved from the area where my mom's family lived, and contact was extremely limited after that - and when there was contact, it was usually conflict. 5 years after that, my mom died after a battle of cancer - and contact was then severed.

Maybe 7 years ago, a cousin found my brother on the internet, and contact between him and his parents (the uncle that is dying), and they've begun to develop a bit of a relationship. I've met with them a few times - a dinner when they visited, dinner when I was temporarily living in the area where all my mom's relatives are. Despite past transgressions, that particular branch of my mom's family has made a concerted effort to try and re-build something, it all still feels very uncomfortable to me. My mom's other siblings have made virtually zero effort to reach out.

Even though my mom's brother is dying, he seems more like one of my parents old acquaintances, rather than family. They feel like strangers to me, and I have admittedly been very distant despite their efforts to be friendly and kind. I have not been negative - just unresponsive. Even though my siblings have been able to re-establish some sort of relationship, they are also older than me, and have clear memories of the times we spent together as kids before we moved away - I really don't have a memory of any of that. It all seems very weird to try and build something with people who are strangers.

I feel bad about my unresponsiveness, and don't know what to say now that my uncle has been given a timeline. I feel like I should say something before he inevitably passes soon. But I feel like it's also too late to say something - since I know my siblings have been in some contact since we got my uncle's cancer diagnosis. I would like some guidance on figuring out what to say.

I've lost both my parents, so I have a better grasping of what to say *after* a loved one passes, but in the waiting period before, giving our family complications, I just don't know what to say.
posted by raztaj to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Send a card, and say something generic like "Keeping you all in my thoughts and wishing the best for Uncle Estranged. Best wishes, Raztaj."
posted by DarlingBri at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


You can send a note, thankfully Hallmark now makes one for every occasion. Use DarlingBri's wording, and end it with, "If you need anything, please let me know."

It may never turn into anything more than knowing that you send a nice card, but you may open the door to a better relationship with that side of the family.

FWIW, I'm in a similar situation (although no one is sick) and I have to remind myself to be nice. I started out with making the gesture and now I'm actually fond of the relatives in question.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:43 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's never too late to say something in this situation as long as the loved one is still present.

Perhaps just thinking of this as giving regard to your Uncle's closing window of this life and honouring the distress and grief of those closer to him could help you approach this most organically?

Sending a note like DarlingBri says, or giving a call or just...anything would likely be an appreciated balm. Even if you were a neighbour or co-worker, this would be appropriate and kind.
posted by batmonkey at 9:46 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems appropriate to wish him well and offer any assistance you can. If you or they are religious, you could say you are praying for his recovery. You don't have to treat him like a best friend or favorite relative, just treat him with respect and kindness. It will be appreciated by him and may make it easier for establishing a relationship with the rest of the family going forward.

If you call him, just say something like, Uncle [Name], "I heard about your diagnosis and I am calling to wish you well." Just take it from there. Follow his lead on how much to make it about the past or about his grim prognosis. If he brings up the past, if it were me, I would say something about being a young girl when the fracture occurred and you simply have no recollection or knowledge about it nor is it something you want to focus on. You want to focus on the future.

If he is not very talkative, just wish him well and offer any assistance. If he is angry, let him vent and say that you are sorry that he feels that way, but you still want to offer any assistance you can. Do not get into an argument with him. There is no winner in that.

Good luck with the contact and with your uncle's prognosis.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:11 AM on February 25, 2013


Seconding that it is never too late.

Also, remember the old saying "better to regret something you did than something you didn't do".

In this case, you can turn it both ways. If you feel strongly that you don't want to contact them, then that would be a positive action, ie. doing something. So that's cool. But if you're not sure, and it seems that you're not, the positive action would be to make contact, and that is what I would advise you to do.

However, it is your choice, and in a situation as complex as this, whatever choice you make will probably turn out to be the right one.
posted by greenish at 10:12 AM on February 25, 2013


I agree that a card would be nice.

I would be careful about making any mention of his "recovery" (as in, "I'm praying for his recovery"), given the apparent finality of the diagnosis. It can be annoying or frustrating for people dealing with an imminent death to have others treat it as potentially not-imminent, like you're denying reality.
posted by jaguar at 10:24 AM on February 25, 2013


raztaj: "It all seems very weird to try and build something with people who are strangers."

What would you say to a coworker or professional contact or a teacher or a stranger at a party if they mentioned a serious health issue? Say that to your uncle.

I personally would send flowers and a card with a simple note, worded like DarlingBri suggests.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:42 AM on February 25, 2013


My mother died in December. My mother was very close with one of her brothers. However, his ex-wife and children can't stand the man for not unsubstantial reasons. I would have loved them to be there but understood they could not but I was comforted when they sent a card.

So, your relationship with your uncle won't matter for too long. But your relationship with your extended family will. Decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them and go from there.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:45 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


It all seems very weird to try and build something with people who are strangers.

Everyone you don't know is a stranger. The problems within your family are a generation past; your generation is working with what they have to connect with each other in a positive way. You absolutely positively do not have to do that if you don't want to. But there's also no reason to perpetuate your parents' grudges against people who were children at the time.

Whether or not you want to pursue something deeper with your relatives, a card is appropriate for the current situation.
posted by headnsouth at 11:32 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is nothing wrong with a simple card but this is an opportunity to make a more honest heart-felt connection while still respecting your ambivalence. I would start with thinking about what you wish you could say (not what you will say) if you could be both honest and caring with your uncle/cousins. If I imagine myself in your situation, it might be something like "It is nice that to know that people in my mother's family care enough to reach out to us. It can be hard to rebuild relationships that were ruptured so very long ago. I am sorry about Uncle's illness and it is sad that we don't have more time to know each other. You are all in my thoughts." Anyway, whatever your version would be be, once you know, you can then decide how blunt or warm you want to be.

You also have the choice to do nothing. But if you would send a card after he dies, then by all means send one now when he can know you wanted to do it. Even if it is just a Hallmark card with your signature. Aim for the choice you are less likely to regret later.
posted by metahawk at 11:38 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


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