How to get support from my boyfriend while my mother is dying?
March 28, 2010 9:58 AM   Subscribe

My mother is going to die and my boyfriend is barely able to provide the support I need. How do I deal with this?

My mother has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year and a half ago, and after her state became very unstable last month, I am now more and more anxious, aware of the fact that her health can now deteriorate very quickly.

I feel the need to rely on my boyfriend of eight months but he barely shows any support. He is unable to console me and when I say that I’m sad and try to get a response from him, he cuts himself off and becomes silent. He hugs me sometimes but that is all I get. I need more. I need him to show more support and to say comforting words.

He lost his father to brain cancer six years ago (we are both in our twenties) and it’s clear to me that he repressed his feelings at the time and has been avoiding them since. I know that my situation brings back painful memories for him and I feel terrible but I do need the support badly.

I can count on my best friends and family but they all live far away. Where I live, my boyfriend is my closest friend and that makes me more dependent on his support. My psychoanalyst and I work on my feelings and reactions but she won’t comment further on his side of the story (she doesn’t know him of course). We focus on me and how I can accept this difficult situation and be satisfied with the little support he provides but this is a slow process.

I was hoping I could read some opinions and similar experiences here. How to accept the situation without building resentment? How to talk to him and ask for more support without sounding like a threatening burden? Any specific thing that could trigger something in him and make him want to open up/maybe seek help himself? I know I can’t change him but I am getting more and more anxious at the thought that my mother has not much time left and I am so afraid of going through this alone.

I am not looking for a magic solution, I know this is complicated and that every situation is different but some food for thought would be welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does he know how to handle it? I know I bottle things things and do my grieving in private. He could be worrying that anything he says is going to make things worse. I mean, you can't exactly say that everything is going to be OK because your mother is still going to die. Other options could easily be construed as wanting her to hurry up and die so you can move onto the next step. I'll bet that neither one of those is something that he wants to convey.
posted by theichibun at 10:10 AM on March 28, 2010


Have you checked to see if there are support groups in your area for people who have lost loved ones to cancer?
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:11 AM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wonder if it might be useful for you to accept the reality of the trees right now and not the forest (or the social constructions of the forest). I mean -- I wonder if you are thinking, God, my *mother* is ill, *dying,* and my *boyfriend* who is supposed to *love* *me* is *not helping* (and he needs therapy). Which is, I guess, all true. But it might be better for you to accept how boyfriend is, and when you need support to gravitate toward those who are able to provide it, either in person (support group?) or telephonically (friends and family). Maybe boyfriend can't support you in the way you would like, but can cook a meal, or pick you up from the airport, or do other things to support. Maybe boyfriend can't support you at all right now. Whatever it is, make a note of it, it will be a piece of information that might be useful to you. In the short term, I imagine, your boyfriend's ways won't dramatically change. (YMMV)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:15 AM on March 28, 2010 [12 favorites]


I need more. I need him to show more support and to say comforting words.

Have you told him this? Does he know what "more support" means? (I don't, from what you've described, besides "to say more comforting words".) I know this is an awful situation, but you can't expect people---even your boyfriend---to read your mind...
posted by leahwrenn at 10:17 AM on March 28, 2010


Soon after I graduated from college, my girlfriend's mother died. I am one of those guys who is not very attune to others emotional needs. But, I recognized that and finally asked my gf to specifically tell me what she wanted me to do to support her as all I wanted to do was help, but I had no friggin idea how. Sounds like your bf overcame his father's death by repression and he could have "learned" that everyone should do that.

I would have a talk with him and be very clear the types of support for which you are looking. Give him a road map. Yes, you're right, you should not have to do that and you have enough issues right now that you should not have to focus on educating a 20 something male about something he might have learned himself already, but if you are willing, I think it would help both of you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:18 AM on March 28, 2010


How would you advise someone who says that they lost their father to cancer and now has a girlfriend who's going through a similar issue with their mother and it's bringing up an amazing amount of anxiety to the point they can't "be there" for them? You are likely looking at a dry well with your boyfriend and he's thinking "this hits too close to home. Why can't she understand that and be supportive of me?".

Your therapist can be your support through this. Your boyfriend isn't a bad person for not being able to give what he doesn't have. You aren't going through this alone, you are going through this with someone who is deeply affected by cancer and has no emotional energy left. That's a tough situation to be in. But it is different than going through this with someone who doesn't care. He most likely deserves a pass on this one and you need to see the big picture. Circumstances made this happen, not your boyfriend.
posted by qwip at 10:19 AM on March 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


When you are going through a traumatic loss, you need a large network of support, and that's natural. Some people aren't going to be able to rise to that in the same way that others might be able to, and that's natural. Unfortunately, you can't make your boyfriend be ready for this--you have no control over his reaction, and particularly, the trauma of his own loss that makes it very hard for him to be what you want right now. You need to seek out as many other sources as you can, so that you have them ready, because that is the thing you have real and honest control over.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:23 AM on March 28, 2010


My other half and I have, at times, had a similar dynamic going both ways, though luckily involving nothing quite so stark. What really helped us was to say, in pretty concrete terms, "I need you to say/do X," and "I feel hurt when you do/say Y." The two of us dealt with Bad Things and needed to be comforted in different ways, so I think that kind of explicit, detailed communication can help bridge the divide.

Sympathies to your mother and yourself.
posted by PMdixon at 10:31 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Any specific thing that could trigger something in him and make him want to open up/maybe seek help himself? I know I can’t change him but I am getting more and more anxious at the thought that my mother has not much time left and I am so afraid of going through this alone."

It seems that what you're going through is already triggering things in him but that isn't necessarily going to lead to his opening up or even being aware of this. My depression triggered this response from the only person who was cognisant of it, which is what you describe in your boyfriend: "He is unable to console me and when I say that I’m sad and try to get a response from him, he cuts himself off and becomes silent." What you're going through can't be quantified but things were bad for me and I ended up going through it alone for a very long time. Two years later, my friend and I had a conversation about my depression and his reaction to it and he realised for the first time that because he had to deal with a depressive and suicidal mother for many years he automatically shut down -- as your boyfriend seems to be.

It took my friend a long time to get to the point of acknowledging he had repressed a lot of negative feelings and he is still healing. It took a lot for me to get out of my depression and I don't think I would be able to handle making someone else open up. Concentrate on yourself. Give yourself more credit. You will get through this, even without his support. I wish you all the best.
posted by mkdirusername at 10:36 AM on March 28, 2010


As an outsider, i'd go with theichibun and leahwrenn. What does "more support" mean? I disagree with JohnnyGunn though, how can he know what you need without you telling him?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:41 AM on March 28, 2010


Favoriting ClaudiaCenter so hard...

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I would like to say that, as someone who has lost both parents and other loved ones, you cannot expect to get exactly the amount of support you would like from other friends and family. It's an unfortunate fact of life. Get the support you need from wherever you can find it, whether it's from a support group or ancillary friends or co-workers or yourself. If your relationship with your boyfriend is otherwise sound, I would recommend you learn to accept what he can give you.

You will get through this, take my word for it. And I am sorry for your mother's illness.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:43 AM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here's the secret, don't tell anyone--positive reinforcement. When your bf does hug when you say you are sad, tell him how much you appreciate that let him know how his actions and words are important to you and how glad you are for the help.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:57 AM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


This must be a terrible situation for you to be in. However, your being in it doesn't have any effect on whether other people can help you through it or not. Your boyfriend might simply be unable to help you with this, and putting all of the onus on him to help because he's nearest won't help matters.

It's OK for you to say "I need X". It's not OK to demand that your boyfriend provide you with X. The situation here seems to be that you need him to change. Have you considered that he might not be able to, or even want to?

Look for some kind of support group in your area. Your therapist can likely direct you to one. You'll meet people there who can help you through this far more effectively than your boyfriend can. He's very probably not doing this to hurt you. He might just be unable to give you the support you need. If you limit yourself to getting support from just this one person, though, you might just drop the basket of eggs. Having a support group of people who know what you are going through is going to be far more help to you long term, then trying to make your boyfriend change to suit your purposes.
posted by Solomon at 10:58 AM on March 28, 2010


Sounds like your boyfriend needs to learn how to support you. You may not know how to teach him -- none of us are taught to identify and communicate directly about our needs. So step 1 is recognizing what you want, and step 2 is telling him.

My guess is that you want him to listen to you and understand how you feel. That might include asking how you're feeling, how a particular development affects you, and what worries you most. When you answer those questions, you want him to follow up with more questions, to hold your hand, to hug you, to nod, maybe to rub your shoulders. You want it to be okay to say "I feel awful" or "I'm scared as hell" or "I feel guilty" or "I don't know how I'm going to make it." You want him to tell you that it's okay for you to feel crappy all the time, that he doesn't expect you to be perky or cheerful, that he's not tired of you spending your time at the hospital or hiding in bed in a fetal ball.

You may want him to tell a story or two from when he felt that way. Or to ask questions based on his own experience (something like, "I know when my dad was sick, I secretly wished it would end faster, and then I would feel horrible about myself for feeling that way. Do you feel that way too?"). You want his to tell you that what you're experiencing is normal human behavior, that you're not crazy to feel the way you do.

Here's the trick: you do NOT want him to "solve the problem" There's no problem here he could solve, after all. But many of us react to strong negative emotions by trying to fix or change them. They scare us, and we're afraid of getting sucked into those emotions ourselves. Or we genuinely want someone to feel better, so we try to think of things that will help. Or we don't know how to solve the problem, so we shut down.

But the only thing that will help here is listening and understanding. If that resonates for you, try to make a list of things that would help (including anything from this thread), and then ask your boyfriend to sit down with you and discuss what the next few months are going to be like. Share what would be helpful for you. Share what would NOT be helpful for you. Acknowledge that this is going to be hard on both of you and that you really appreciate his help.

Then ask how all this impacts him. Ask what you can do to make this easier for you.

Hopefully, this conversation will help. But inevitably, he'll drift into unhelpful behaviors or shut down, and you may need to revisit the conversation. Check back in about what both of you need. Expect it to be a learning process.

This is a lot to take on in the middle of an incredibly painful experience, but I hope it's worthwhile. For further reading, I recommend Difficult Conversations.

Good luck, and my sincerest condolences in this difficult time.
posted by equipoise at 11:31 AM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oops -- I meant "Ask what you can do to make this easier for HIM." Also, "You want HIM to tell you that what you're experiencing is normal human behavior." Also, I should proofread better.
posted by equipoise at 11:34 AM on March 28, 2010


ClaudiaCenter nails it.

Attempting to fix your boyfriend is not a stress that you need right now. Accept what he can give but look for support elsewhere.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:57 AM on March 28, 2010


I think it's probably important for you to find more support. It's not really fair to either you or your boyfriend to put it all on him, especially given his past.

I had a gf who lost her mom a few years back, and while I think I was able to be supportive, I can't imagine how hard it would have been if she didn't have some friends and family to count on as well. One thing that was especially helpful to her (I think) was to find someone else who was losing her mom at just about the same time.
posted by callmejay at 12:24 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


At the end of the day, dealing the loss of a parent or anyone you love is a solitary kind of thing... No one can grieve for you, no matter how supportive of you or close to you they are. The grief is something you have to deal with, really on your own.

I can tell you, as someone who has been the "natural" person for my friends to turn to when they know someone who is dying/has died, solely for the fact that my father passed away after a long fight with cancer, there are some situations that strike too close to home. There are some times when I walked away and didn't offer support or an ear or a shoulder. Yes, I know that's mean. I know it hurt, but *I* couldn't do it. I couldn't offer any support and I couldn't be there in a way that my friends needed me. Through their situation, I couldn't relive the most horrible and awful and tremendously sad parts of my life all over again. Going through it once was hard enough, horrible and severely depressing. Going through it vicariously was not something *I* or my heart could take.

I completely understand you want some support from your boyfriend, but as someone who has seen the whole fight with cancer to the end, you already know he isn't the support you need. Please relieve him of that guilt/blame, explain to him that you are doing so, and find a group, find a friend, and allow him to not be the only one you can turn to. Putting it on him, although it seems fair because you're in so much pain and confusion right now, is just plain NOT fair. Ask if he's willing to support you in other ways, in any way, in his own way. And then find another outlet to support you in the ways that he can't or won't. And yes, there may be some ways that he will be unwilling. You can't change that. Please don't try.

I'm so very, very sorry for what you're going through. I understand the ups and downs and the stresses you have in your life right now, and I sincerely wish you didn't have to suffer through this. I hope that you find all the support you need and that your mother has the best quality of life for the remainder of hers.
posted by kirstk at 1:12 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


A support group might give you exactly what you need, with people who are in a very similar position. I googled "cancer support" and came up with this link.

A suggestion was made above for a group for people who have lost loved ones to cancer. I was in a group like this, and my group was only for the bereaved. It wasn't for people whose loved ones were still battling.
posted by pinky at 1:48 PM on March 28, 2010


Nthing the idea that you should tell him exactly what you need. We went back and forth on this a little in the "men and womens brains are different" thread, but I've found it generally true that men confront emotional problems by trying to fix them, and women (assuming you're a woman) can find that insensitive and cold. Whether its true or not, your boyfriend likely thinks there's nothing he can say that will make this better (especially if he's gone through this before and it was true in his case), and until you tell him otherwise, he'll continue to think that.

My guess is that you shouldn't worry too much about how to tell him. If he's not irrationally angry with you for how you're feeling, he wants to help and just isn't sure how. If he has emotional blocks built up from when his own parent died, talking about it together would probably be good for you both.

Everybody upthread is right that you'll get through this, especially because of how self-evidently levelheaded you are right now. You've done a great job separating your emotional reaction to your mother's health from your romantic life and being able to do so now and in the future is important. Lean on your therapist, lean on grief counselors at the appropriate time. No amount of good will and effort on his part will ever be able to substitute for professional training in grief management. Good luck.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:49 PM on March 28, 2010


If you think this relationship might be worth it, and assuming you already have asked him to say more supportive words, I'd take this question to couple's therapy. I think that it is very understandable to want to feel some connection to your partner about this, and if you don't (particularly given that you already seem to know that you'll need support besides him as well), then that is a big deal. I'd say something to him as simple as, "hey, I feel like this situation is putting a lot of strain on US as well as just me, can we get a counselor involved to help us?"

This strikes me as a classic couples therapy situation, because the problem exists between you two. You have a need that you may or may not be communicating (and he may or may not be hearing); he has history that may make it difficult for him to meet that need; he might need support or encouragement to move past that stuckness; and you two together could use some help figuring out how to interact given your needs and his reactions. The therapist can help teach him what you understandably won't have the patience to explain; s/he can maybe tell you on his behalf what he may also be trying to say about what he can and can't give; and then you guys can together figure out how to handle both of your needs and capacities. I don't disagree with the people saying "everyone grieves alone," but having a way to come together and talk about it could nevertheless help.

The big caveat is that it could take you six weeks to find someone good, and that is going to be a scheduling hassle on top of the logistical stress you already have, and it could take another three to six weeks to start having any results. For me, it was a lot harder to find a good couples therapist than a good personal therapist. So be prepared, and don't give up until you find someone you're both excited about.
posted by salvia at 2:12 PM on March 28, 2010


If you have given him specific ways you would feel consoled by him, and he can't give them to you, then I think you should get them somewhere else.

Otherwise, it's like knowing someone is in a wheelchair, yet you keep asking them to dance, and being disappointed when they can't.
posted by agentwills at 3:22 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't speak to your specific situation, but a thought about my relationship, I hope it helps.

My husband just isn't the kind of person that you can really lean on in stressful times. You can rely on him to do the basic things he should do, yes, but emotionally, I have to be the rock because he just can't do it. I do sometimes resent it, but then I try to think this: he has a million other good qualities. I will have to do this alone. And I will have to rely on him for the other things I need that will help me have energy to do this alone. He makes sure I eat, he vacuums, he makes sure the bills are paid, he helps me wake up in the morning when I feel like I just can't do it. I have to let him do that, and do the emotional heavy lifting by myself.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:54 PM on March 28, 2010


I feel the need to rely on my boyfriend of eight months but he barely shows any support. He is unable to console me and when I say that I’m sad and try to get a response from him, he cuts himself off and becomes silent. He hugs me sometimes but that is all I get. I need more. I need him to show more support and to say comforting words.

"Boyfriend, we need to talk. You know what my mother's going through, and how hard it is on her and on me. I know you want to help me get through this, but that you don't know what you're supposed to do, or what I need from you. So here's what I need: [the things you need, in a brief, specific list.] If you can't or won't give me these things, I understand, but then I'm going to need to get that support somewhere else, wherever I can. I'd much rather get it from you, because if we're going to be in a long-term relationship I need to know you're the kind of person who can support me at a time like this."
posted by davejay at 5:15 PM on March 28, 2010


I can't speak to your specific situation, but a thought about my relationship, I hope it helps.

My husband just isn't the kind of person that you can really lean on in stressful times. You can rely on him to do the basic things he should do, yes, but emotionally, I have to be the rock because he just can't do it. I do sometimes resent it, but then I try to think this: he has a million other good qualities. I will have to do this alone. And I will have to rely on him for the other things I need that will help me have energy to do this alone. He makes sure I eat, he vacuums, he makes sure the bills are paid, he helps me wake up in the morning when I feel like I just can't do it. I have to let him do that, and do the emotional heavy lifting by myself.


Reality, this. Make sure he isn't speaking the only language he can. The irony is that those who cannot speak usually love more than the rest. And those who use the word with ease have no idea what it is about.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:06 PM on March 28, 2010


By the way, with a man, never, ever discount the direct approach. Ask yourself exactly what you want and ask him for that. Men do love and will do as you ask.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:08 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


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