What can I say when my boyfriend gets scared about his Dad dying?
February 9, 2009 1:02 AM   Subscribe

What can I say when my boyfriend gets scared about his Dad dying?

My boyfriend is in his mid-twenties. His father is nearly 80. A month ago, my boyfriend's uncle (his father's older brother) died age 89. This death itself wasn't too much of a blow - he was sad but never really knew his uncle and hadn't seen him in many, many years. However, it seems to have started making him think about his Dad being old, and maybe not having long left.

Last week, he got a little upset while we were in bed (just lying there, lights off) and said "I just feel really scared about him not being around any more."

I really suddenly didn't know what to say or do. I froze up completely. I just gave him a big hug for a long time, and said "I am here for you." But I feel like I was incredibly unhelpful and useless. One possible reason is, he is usually the strong one in our relationship, and never really shows his fears or sadness. So I sort of panicked. Another part is that although I listen very well, I've never felt like a particularly helpful person when people are upset.

My question, I think, is: what could/should I have said, or is it OK that I didn't really say anything, and what can I/should I say to help in the future? I know nobody can make the idea of looming death seem fine, but I'd like him to feel like he can really rely on me for advice and support, because he's so amazing to me whenever I'm upset or worried about anything.
posted by trampesque to Human Relations (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It is really 100% fine that you didn't say anything. What you did was perfect. There isn't a magical word or phrase or action that will make him feel better. He's processing some fear and grief about his father's age, and everyone processes it differently.

If you really feel like you need to say something, or that he's expecting you to say something, you can ask if he wants to talk about it. And then listen to him talk without judgment.
posted by rhapsodie at 1:11 AM on February 9, 2009

Wearing my repressed Anglo male hat --

Look, that was the right thing to do. His dad really is going to die, if not soon, within the next few years, and he is adjusting to that fact.

When people are upset, listening is a good thing to do. So is hugging. If boyfriend is "the strong one", then it probably took a lot out of him just to tell you that - a supportive but undramatic response seems perfect to me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:13 AM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Mid-20s is young to lose your dad. We all lose our parents, and it is a horrible, painful thing. Sadly, there isn't anything you can tell him. He is coming to grips with an inevitable life altering future event that cannot be avoided. By the time it happens, he may have prepared himself as much as possible. I think "I'm here for you" was a good thing to say. Letting him know that you are there whenever he wants to discuss it, or cry about it, or needs a hug is something he'll certainly appreciate. The fact that you thought enough about it to seek advice here suggests that you're a great girlfriend.
posted by Crotalus at 2:32 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just gave him a big hug for a long time, and said "I am here for you."

I believe that you said everything you can and need to say.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:35 AM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I agree with the above posters that you did the right thing.

I lost my dad last year at 24. My dad wasn't all that old but he'd had health problems for most of my life, so worrying about his dying was a constant and understandable thing. (For what it's worth, the worrying made it easier when he actually died; I'd gotten so much of my mourning out of the way by confronting it beforehand. It doesn't work this way for everyone, of course, but you can't do anything to change that if it doesn't.)

What I can tell you is that I would have been irritated if someone tried to make me feel better about it by trying to talk me through it. Why? Because his dying was inevitable. That means there are only two ways to try and make me feel better about it: either say that he's not going to die (i.e. deny reality), or say that I shouldn't feel so bad about it for whatever reason.

The former is almost insulting, because it says the person should believe something that isn't true... it strikes me as treating someone like a child, like how we tell children their pets aren't dead, only sleeping. That sort of thing.

The latter is really irritating to hear, especially from someone who isn't in the same position. I don't know about everyone else, but when I'm upset about something that's genuinely worth being upset over -- like someone close to me dying -- the last thing I want to hear is that I'm supposed to have superhuman powers of coping that prevent me from getting too upset in the first place. I feel like you reach that place after you let yourself be upset, and no one has the right to keep someone from that, even if they just want to make them feel better. My husband sometimes takes that approach when he wants me to feel better; he'll talk about why, logically, I should not be upset. When he does this, I have to stop him and tell him that when he says things like that, he makes me feel like I'm not allowed to have emotions, and that I know he's just trying to make me feel better but please stop talking.

For what it's worth, I feel that things like, "he had a good life" and all that fall in the second category. If I'm scared of someone's death, I don't care that they had a good life, I'm still scared. In fact, a lot of consolation, I find, can go along these same lines. The point is that someone is scared of someone else dying, and there's not much that can really get to the core of that. I could believe in heaven, my dad could have lived in a solid gold house in the happiest of moods for his entire life, and so on, and none of that would make anything better in the moments I was scared of his dying. When people would bring those things up, especially when my dad actually died, I felt like they were missing the point. In actuality that sort of consolation should make sense, but it can be so disconnected from what the grieving person feels that it can be difficult to listen to. I remember that my dad's memorial service was all the more difficult because people kept trying to say things like that. I wanted to just think about my dad for a bit and mourn him, but I spent the majority of the service concentrating on being polite to well-meaning people who were making me feel worse.

In other words, there isn't a whole lot you can say. The fact of the matter is that his dad is going to die one day, and it's reasonable that he is scared to imagine such a thing. Nothing you say will change that.

What you did was the right thing to do. Please don't fall into the trap my husband sometimes does, where he thinks if he does or says just the right thing everything will be better. It's very sweet that you want to do that; we all wish we could work magic for people we care about. But when people have to face the death of their loved ones, what they need is time and the comfort that people will be there for them through it.
posted by Nattie at 3:35 AM on February 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

I think you did beautifully. What I would offer is that if it comes up again, and obviously, as time goes on it will, you might need a little more substance.

I don't know how close the two of you are, but talking about his Dad's accomplishments, his positive impact on your boyfriend and the family, some rememberances you may hold dear, and importantly, how much the two of you have to look forward to, are great 'transition' topics as the inevitable looms.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:04 AM on February 9, 2009

Nthing that your reaction was superb and eloquent; to try to imagine myself in the BF's position/frame of mind, can't imagine a better GF response. From there, one view to let him lead--see what he says, if he's not bringing it up, but your best sense is that it's on his mind a lot. Guys tend to take and like the approach of, "okay, here is a problem so how does this get fixed?," much as this sort of thing isn't fixable.

If there is more communication, he seems receptive to appreciations, positive observations, sounds like your BF had a good upbringing. It might at some point be valued if you relate that the father's set a fine example for the son, that the father's lessons and examples will live on via the actions and values of his child(ren).
posted by ambient2 at 4:54 AM on February 9, 2009

I just went through this with my boyfriend and his father. His father was 90 and died three weeks ago after 3 months of a slow declining illness. His mother died 3 years ago. I basically told him the same thing... "I'm here for you and you won't go through this alone". And I said it over and over. My bf was also the only caretaker of his father during the last few months, so it was especially intense. When things got stressful, I also gently reminded him that this time was still time with his father. In the two weeks before he died, they spent a lot of time looking and identifying old pictures, listening to records, and telling stories.

I also lived up to my promise and was there as much as possible. Usually, I was just an extra warm body in the house, but it kept my bf from feeling so alone and isolated. The last few weeks were fraught with emotion as his dad slipped into a stupor and decisions had to be made about how to carry out his living will. We spent lots of time at te hospital. I listened, offered my opinion when it was asked for, and mainly just reassured him that in death and dying there are no absolutely right or wrong decisions. I've reassured him that he was a wonderful son, caretaker, and advocate for his father.

Sometimes you don't have to say anything at all... just being there is enough.
posted by kimdog at 6:52 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

My parents are both still alive, but when I think about them dying, I sometimes remember a line quoted in (or possibly made up for, as I haven't been able to find it elsewhere) Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening:
Casey thought of a phrase he'd once read in some collection of letters -- he couldn't remember whose. It was some great man of our age -- Marx or Freud or someone like that. One of the founders. Writing to a friend whose father had died, the great man had said, "It will revolutionize your soul." The death of Casey's parents had revolutionized his soul. He had loved his parents, and he'd suffered deeply when each of them died; but in the years after they died, he came to feel he breathed a freer air. (pp. 281-82)
Perhaps your boyfriend would find the thought a small consolation in his fear.
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh at 8:30 AM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

My father died when I was in my mid-20s. I think you handled it right. About the only thing I'd suggest doing now is reiterating what you've already said to make sure your own uncertainty about what you can do doesn't make him feel like he can't come to you. Something like "I'm not sure what I can do for you, but anytime you want to talk, or need me to listen. I'm here."
posted by Good Brain at 11:24 AM on February 9, 2009

I'm turning 33 this year, and my father died when I was 26.

The quote provided by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh is simply the truest thing I've ever read about the death of a parent. I'm pretty sure it's not something I wanted to hear immediately prior to or after my father's death, however.

Part of me divides the men I encounter now into two groups: those who've lost their fathers, and those who haven't. Yes, it's nice that you'll be there for him, but the hard truth is there is no time a boy or man will feel more alone than when he's lost his dad. There's really nothing more you can do for him, and arguably, nothing more you SHOULD do for him. It really is an emotional journey that's really his alone.

See him off. Welcome him back. Don't make the trip any harder than it already is. That's all, really.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2009

The quote provided by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh is simply the truest thing I've ever read about the death of a parent. I'm pretty sure it's not something I wanted to hear immediately prior to or after my father's death, however.

I agree with this. I relate to the sentiment of the quote, but I think it would have rankled me to have heard it before or right after my dad died.
posted by Nattie at 1:09 PM on February 9, 2009

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