Estranged Parent Dying of Cancer
June 8, 2010 6:09 AM   Subscribe

I recently found out my father is dying of cancer. We haven't spoken in over a decade. What are your experiences with reconciliation in this kind of situation?

Last week I found out that my father has liver cancer. All the information I'm getting is 2nd hand, but I know he is on targeted drug therapy, so I'm thinking there is not much time.

Our relationship has always been tumultuous, and our history is littered with blowups and drama of all flavors, divorce, alcoholism. It seems we never really even liked each other.

I knew this day would come eventually, but I don't feel like I always thought I would. Instead of feeling indifferent, I feel melancholy, and I keep replaying scenes from our past in my mind, analyzing them, and trying to figure out what went wrong.

I have a sister who has reached out to my father in the past, and she has been constantly rejected. He has grandchildren he has never met.

If you have been though a similar situation, what did you do? How did it work out?
posted by Otis to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to care about toxic parents. Maybe it's best to try to do a group thing with the family? This way it doesn't seem overly "hey you got cancer so let's make up". And also then the ball is in his court. If he refuses, he could just be a bitter, lonley soul who has chosen his destiny.

I have toxic parents but I've been speaking on and off with them for the past 10 years. My son (their first grandchild) brought us to talk more. My mom has terminal cancer so I figured I can have my feelings and fights but she deserves to see her grandchild. But it's different, she wants to see him.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Yes, liver cancer is bad but unless you know the stage and targeted treatment, don't assume he's on death's door. My mom has had stage IV metastatic breast cancer for over 5 years. Six month's ago the oncologist said start making final plans. It's now past 6 months. The last chemo option she's on is actually shrinking tumors in her liver, etc.

It's tough. Make more peace with yourself about all of this than worrying about reconciling, etc. And know if in the end you're still meloncholy, it's ok. High drama/toxicity in parents don't make it easy on the kids and they can't expect high emotions. It's seemed you and your sister tried, he threw the relationship away.

Much love and hugs.
posted by stormpooper at 6:17 AM on June 8, 2010

For a counter-anecdode, the oncologist said my mom had weeks to live, I delayed my trip by a couple days, and she died while I was waiting to transfer planes in Schiphol.

We had a good relationship, so I don't have advice on that front. I guess I just feel like if there are things you need to say to him, now's the time to do it. When he's gone, he's gone forever.
posted by bitterpants at 6:40 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Like a lot of people, I had a fairly unhappy upbringing. When my father was dying of cancer, we spoke rarely and guardedly. It wasn't so much that we didn't want to talk as there was too much to say, so we didn't.

At any rate, my point is that one day I got it into my head to finally have a serious conversation with him about what he had meant to me, because this was a human being who was dying and he deserved to know. It was going to be an Event.

That evening, he was found dead in the hospital while my sister and I were watching Conan at home. Would have been better to have talked to him earlier. One day earlier - two days earlier - three days earlier - you get the picture.

I was 16 at the time, so I was neither an adult nor 10 years estranged like you are with your parent, but let my regret be some food for thought for you.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:53 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's nothing explicitly wrong with "hey you got cancer so let's make up". It's perfectly valid; "We don't have time to sort through our own petty bullshit" can cut through a lot of emotional red tape.
posted by notsnot at 7:27 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know a couple people who had difficult relationships with cold or mean parents, and when those parents reached the end of their lives, their kids felt a sense of urgency to get back in touch or reconnect in some meaningful way, and later felt guilt or regret at not having been able to "fix" the relationship when their cold or mean parents didn't reciprocate. Nevermind that the parent had done most (if not all) of the damage, and had been deeply and repeatedly unkind to their child throughout his/her growing up and adult years. From an outside perspective, I just wish there were a way to reassure these people that their parents made adult choices, and that the damaged relationship was part of those choices--that it is a very sad situation, but not a reflection of failure or wrongdoing on the child's part.

Do you have someone--a spouse or friend--who could be your "sanity check" if you do decide to reach out? Some parents come to their senses and realize they have an opportunity to improve things with their kids in this type of situation. Others keep on acting the same as they always have. The latter can be very jarring for the children of these parents, and it's easy to slip into undeserved feelings of guilt or to convince oneself that "If only I'd done X differently..." when really it's so much more complicated than that.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:34 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

My father is also dying. I have, after much consideration, made the decision not to reconcile with him. There is nothing I need to say, and nothing he can say that justifies the risk of opening the door again to someone who is so unreliable in terms of his attitudes and behaviour and has so much power to damage me.

YMMV but for what it's worth, my melancholy is around the fact that now we're at the end, it's clear his life has been utterly wasted. My hope for some kind of change or salvation (of the humanitarian, rather than religious kind) isn't going to come true, and I think more than anything I'm just disappointed in him.

Sadness isn't, in other words, an indicator that reconciliation is the next step or even the best option. You're the one who has to keep living after he's dead, so do the thing that is absolutely best for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:36 AM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Otis, my Mother and I had the worst relationship--it was AWFUL. We managed to have half way decent phone conversations when she was quite old--but I had moved 3,000 miles away from her (intentionally) and I honestly did not see the point of anything more than the occasional call. One day I got a call from a doctor advising me that my Mother had been on life support for several days (!) and now she was OFF life support (!) He told me that she had a large mass in her lung..that it was definitely terminal and that I "should" be there. UGH. I REALLY did NOT want to be there. I kept thinking--what the he** am I supposed to do about this? But, I more less got shamed into making the cross country trip there..kind of hoping she'd just slip away without me. (I know..none of that sounds like I am a nice person--but my whole life had been completely dominated by her in one way or another and I had I just wished the whole problem would just "go away").

Visiting with my Mother for the next week and a half in the hospital was difficult as always. She was just like she had always been (alternately charming and crazy making) She wanted me to move her to another hospital, she wanted me to do this and do that--(I couldn't change her to another hospital). It was especially confusing to me because one doctor claimed she'd make it and another one told me she would not. Those doctors were never in the same room at the same time. She kept asking to move to Oregon with me. Finally, one nurse said.."you'd better stay, your Mother is not going to make it through the night". "Well..can't I just go back to her house and come back again?" I asked. (I'm sure MOST people want to stay..but I was so squeamish over the whole thing) No, she replied---you should stay here, not for her...for you. So I stayed and held her hand all night. She died right before my eyes. The nurse was right..during the night I remembered all the wonderful things my Mother had been..those are the memories I carry most today...the positive ones. Death changes everything. Do what you can and remember my nurse's smart words, do it for you.

I read a book on the plane that was so helpful to me. I can't remember the name of the was undoubtedly very similar to this one.

Just take it one step at a time and realize your Dad will probably have the gamut of feelings. Play it all by ear. Extend the olive branch--if he takes it good, if he doesn't --that is all right too.
Good luck, Otis. I hope you'll uncover a great treasure of memories like I did.
posted by naplesyellow at 7:46 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Meg_Murray's first part summarized my friend's experience, except that my friend also seemed to get a sense of peace from having been there in person to be rejected in person for awhile, and in general having done all she could. Someone else had a better experience as her mom accepted antidepressants as part of her treatment, suddenly became nicer, and they were able to reconcile almost totally. But that seems less likely.
posted by salvia at 8:02 AM on June 8, 2010


I've just come home from a reconciliation with my father -- and his funeral. I'd say the topic is still a sensitive one but we hadn't spoken in 15 years or so and initially I had reservations about what to do. Ultimately I went, visited for a few days -- extended my trip -- and re-extended my trip to care for him during his last few weeks. Our time together as adults was awesome and really meant a lot. We were able to stay out of muddling through the past and instead -- visited and watched a lot of jeopardy.

He and I were fine.

That being said, the other people in his life were and are more difficult. The visit was not without stress.

My rules were and are:

- The past is the past. I don't live in it.
- Be nice.
- Remembering that the relationship I need was between he and I. Ignore the rest.
- Compassion. Compassion. Compassion. I don't even have words for this life lesson yet but wow it tells you something about your own humanity when you can live and act on compassion.

I started with the past in the past -- and I believe it -- but the past will insert itself into the present so this rule is almost instantly broken.

Compassion I realized somewhere around week 6.

Anyhow me-mail me if you want. This probably isn't overly coherent. Make your own decision but also try on compassion. And call before you go. I called before every visit just so I could mentally prepare for the tone of the day.

Good luck. I wouldn't say I got a happy ending necessarily but I'm really glad that I went.
posted by countrymod at 8:22 AM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm very happy for the people who had experiences of resolution and closure. I think that's what a lot of people hope for, but I certainly didn't have such an experience when we (me + wife and kids) traveled to my father's deathbed.

I *think* he was glad to see me, but it was hard to know, since he was out of it on pretty high morphine doses to ease his pain. I felt like I was left with the same enigmatic man I'd tried to have a relationship with, and once again, he was outside my grasp. More of the same...

I did, however, use the experience as the base of a performance monologue class I took later on. I was frankly surprised that it came up as what I wrote about, but it must have been tugging away at me without me realizing it.
posted by jasper411 at 9:40 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

My Dad died of liver cancer 4 years ago. I wasn't estranged from him but our relationship was extremely strained from a history of alcoholism and neglect. I was really the only person my Dad had (only child, Mom died when I was young) and the day my Dad was diagnosed I turned down a job offer (3,000 miles away) that would have been a real career opener and instead my husband and I moved into his house to care for him.

My father only lived for three more months but I can't tell you how thankful I am for those three months. Liver cancer forced him to be sober (drinking made him incredibly sick). Getting to know my Dad sober was an amazing experience. He wasn't a unpredictable ranging monster he was just my Dad. He died holding my hand. There is nothing quite as humbling as to be there during a person's last moments.

I find it amazing how much I miss him. For years I just wished he would die to get him out of my life and now, when I think of the man I got to know those last three months, my heart aches that he is no longer around.

I can't promise this will be your experience but I think it would be worth contacting him to see if some good can come out of the bad. This is your last chance to contact him - if he continues his pattern all you have to do is walk away.
posted by a22lamia at 9:52 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agree with all who say that no matter what the circumstances you will likely regret not making the effort. If it's hard try coming down to his level of consciousness.
posted by Pamelayne at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2010

My father is not ill, but I have recently been getting back into contact with him after a period of estrangement (14 years).

Life is simply too short. One thing I've learned through getting older myself is that everyone makes mistakes - and while he continues to make them, he is muddling by in the only fashion he knows. I don't have to condone his actions, choices or lifestyle, but I can at least view him as a human being.

Just do it - you will never forgive yourself if he dies and you didn't "connect", and even if it goes badly - at least you tried.
posted by jkaczor at 11:31 AM on June 8, 2010

you will never forgive yourself if he dies and you didn't "connect"

I don't think this is helpful. You can and should "forgive" yourself if you decide you can't stomach more rejection from a volatile alcoholic parent who doesn't like his kids and refuses to have a relationship. You get to decide if you want to try once more at the end of his life to reach out and reconnect--and it's a fine, honorable, potentially wonderful thing to do. You might reconnect in a way you'd hoped for, or you might simply be satisfied knowing that you tried. However, someone whose parent has not only created drama and pain but has rejected subsequent efforts by his kids to reconcile is not a person who needs to be told "you will never forgive yourself..."
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:11 PM on June 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry. And very, very sympathetic - this is pretty close to a post I could have written this week, having just found out my own mostly-estranged father has aggressive cancer (though not as far along as it sounds like you're facing), and getting most of my information second-hand. I wish I knew what advice to give, since if I did, I'd give it to myself, too. But for whatever it's worth, you're not alone. I am also finding myself much more affected and melancholy than I thought I'd be, and struggling with how much and whether to reach out at this point.

Personally, I've decided to go visit in a few weeks after his surgery; we'll have some idea by then what the prognosis is like, which I hope will give me some grounding in how to feel and what to do. I would like to believe this will be some magical reconciliation visit, but that's never happened any of the other handful of times I've thought it would, and I'm trying not to get my hopes up now. I'm going as much to be supportive for my siblings as anything else.

I hope whatever you do gives you some peace. Feel free to drop me a line if you want to talk to someone else going through a variant of the same thing.
posted by Stacey at 1:58 PM on June 8, 2010

My father died last year. I had always had a difficult relationship with him and one of my worst fears as a teenager was that he would die without a reconciliation.

I did not reconcile with him. I did my best to be nice to him, and there were a couple of moments while he was in the hospital when I feel like we really connected as human beings (after he stopped talking altogether). I feel okay about it anyway, I think I tried hard enough and often enough and I tried to be compassionate, especially at the end. It was weeks of stress and misery and tedium (yes, tedium), trying to orchestrate some kind of Big Important Disney Moment would have made it worse for me. My sister, on the other hand, somehow managed to flip the switch in her head from "this is my dad dying and he was mean to me" to "this is a person dying and he needs my compassion". She said what needed to be said when it needed saying, and I just said "me too". She was the hero of the whole thing. I never got past feeling like he'd let me down, but I did get past feeling like it was my fault.

What I (self-servingly) took away from the whole thing is that some relationships allow for reconciliation, and some don't. And you do not need to feel bad if your relationship just isn't going to let it happen. Do the right thing, whatever that may be, but do not turn your life upside down trying to make things perfect. It is not your fault.
posted by biscotti at 6:31 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can reconcile without groveling, without taking back the past, without solving or resolving everything. You can just say you are setting all that aside and do this for yourself so that you have no regrets.
posted by dhartung at 10:32 PM on June 8, 2010

Thank you everyone. I really appreciate all the comments. They have been very helpful.
posted by Otis at 6:17 AM on June 9, 2010

For anyone down the road who may be facing a similar situation, if you have any inclinations for a reconciliation, consider acting on them quickly. Time ran out for me.
posted by Otis at 5:31 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, Otis, I'm so sorry. :(
posted by salvia at 7:11 PM on June 13, 2010

I am so sorry, Otis.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:39 AM on June 14, 2010

Otis, I'm sorry. I just learned yesterday that my mother is probably going to die from cirrhosis. She is an alcoholic and is bi-polar. My brother and I had to leave her to live in a shelter before getting the legal o.k. to have our Dad take up custody of us. Now, after years of worrying about a terrible phone call informing me of a tragic death, I think I see what the end will probably be like.

I really don't know yet what I will do. She has an extremely long track record of being dramatic (told my grandfather and i that she was dying of cancer when I was 8 for attention, etc...), but this time I know it is true - all of the information comes from other people and it is consistent. We lost track of where she was a few months ago and now she is rooming with a friend who is taking care of her, apparently.

My brother and I never make a move without consulting each other, so I'm going to pursue that avenue today, but neither of us have actually talked to her for 10 years. I think I need to accept this as quickly as I can and resolve to approach it calmly and to stick to my guns, but, definitely to get the balls to make some contact.

We will see. But, thanks Otis for starting this. It is really comforting to read this and it has gotten me to think more clearly about everything.
posted by kakakakarl at 8:28 AM on June 14, 2010

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