How do I deal with multiple out-of-state family illnesses?
August 12, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

I can't stop feeling guilty about not being able to visit sick family members or help them more. I'm scared of others dying or being sick.

I have a large extended family on both sides.

Let me explain the health problems first.

Currently my (college educated, former business owner) father cannot get on right track due to his past (legal reasons; mom left him, he got remarried to an abused coke addict with BPD that accused him of things that didn't happen - Dad pled guilty because it lawyer said he didn't stand a chance). He is living with his Mom's side of the family in the middle of nowhere in a shack. No one will hire him. He is constantly giving me and my sister guilt trips about how we don't love him anymore and how we don't come to visit (which I want to do - but I don't have vacation time nor the funds). He has heart problems and panic disorder and thinks he's going to die anyday. This week, I found out he was in the VA hospital because he "felt weird". He mentioned feeling suicidal to my sister.

His Grandmother (my great-grandmother) is 94 years old and in and out of the hospital. the family is thinking this may be her last year.

In Florida, I have two aunts that I'm close to that are sick. One has MS and the other (who I mentioned in my last question) has cancer most likely from Hep C (including liver damage, enlarged spleen, lost 60 pounds). My aunt with the liver damage and cancer always ends up crying when I talk to her... and she has anxiety issues and also doesn't want much details from the doctors because she is scared. She ends up asking me sometimes to look up her health problems - which pretty much says "grim". She always asks when I'm going to visit.

Both my Aunt and my father like to talk on the phone for hours at a time - which I dislike a lot. I feel guilty about not calling them more often - but it's hard to deal with 2-4 hours phone conversations. but I know I may feel guilty about not talking on the phone as much if somethign should happen.

I have NO IDEA how to handle ANY of this.
I can't be in three states at once.

Only one person really close to me has died - a family friend that we lived with my whole life until his death. And when he was sick from the cancer, I was 12 years old. I was terrified and didn't go to the hospital to see him. When he briefly came home from the hospital, I was so scared. I was too terrified to go to see his body (I have a fear of seeing dead bodies) and I guess I carry that guilt with me.

CONSTANTLY, I think about all the family members I have and how they're all possibly going to be dying within the next few decades (If I don't go early... which i hope I don't) and how my father's life has been pretty much ruined and there's not much I can do to help unless I had a lot of money.

How do I stop thinking about everyone dying?
How do I deal with the guilt of living in another state from all my sick family members?
How do I deal with them when they're crying?
posted by KogeLiz to Human Relations (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There are no easy solutions to the illness and death of family members. But in your case I will make some suggestions. Because your ill relatives tend to talk to you on the phone for excessive periods of time, you just avoid phoning. However, you can phone and tell them that you have some pre-determined amount of time available - let us say, half an hour - and although they will still be talking after half an hour, you can tell them at that time that you have to go - and do it. This is better than not phoning at all, and they should understand that you do have other demands on your time than talking to them (and even if they don't understand, you can still tell them you have to go, and hang up). If they want to know what you are going to be doing after the half hour is up, or why you only have half an hour, or whether this means that you don't love them enough to talk for more than half an hour, you don't really have to explain yourself in detail. A simple answer would just be, I have a life. If they cannot accept that, you still have the option of going back to the original plan of just not phoning them.

As for the more general issue of feeling guilty about living in another state from all your sick family members, you obviously had some good reason for living in that other state or you wouldn't be living there, and you are entitled to live your own life. My family is like this as well; I live in Canada, my parents (who are in their 80's) live in New York, and my sister lives in Michigan. None of us has ever complained in any way that the others are inconsiderate in their choice of residence. We are all living where we need to live, and we keep in touch. If my parents really had to be closer to me, they are free to move to Canada. The onus isn't on me.

And how do you deal with them when they are crying? There really isn't very much you can do about this, other than to tell them that you are sorry that they are going through such a difficult time. Obviously you would solve their problems if you could, but you can't. You can be sympathetic, that's about it.

As for the problem of how to stop thinking about everyone dying, life is full of potential distractions. If you think about something else you won't be thinking about that. Or even if the thoughts combine - some work of art reminds you of personal tragedies - it is a healthier thought, because it is more in perspective. You have problems, your relatives have problems, but that is part of the human condition, from time immemorial.
posted by grizzled at 10:22 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Know this--you will never be able to do enough. You will never be able to talk to your father enough, or visit enough. He'll die, your grandmother will die, and nothing you will have done, under any circumstances, no matter how much you've done, will have been enough.

Morbid and depressing? Sure, but also very freeing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:43 AM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Regarding the phone calls, I agree with grizzled - set a limit. Call, and say right at the beginning that you are sorry, but you only have half an hour (or whatever) before you need to... go to a doctors appointment, an interview, anything that is absolute and can't be pushed back. This way, you can stick to your limit without feeling guilted into "just 10 more minutes."

You don't mention your current situation. Are you working? In school? Try to find a counselor or therapist you can talk to about this. It is not as daunting a task as you might think. If you have insurance through work, a session a week or so is probably covered. If you are in school, you probably have access to counselors for free. I think it would be very helpful for you to talk out your fears and get feedback from a professional. No matter what the situation, they've probably dealt with something similar before, and can help you figure out strategies to deal with it.
posted by coupdefoudre at 11:00 AM on August 12, 2010

I would make a list of things I would totally regret not doing once they're gone. Make sure you are reasonable when thinking about it, though.

Call them consistently. Once a week at least, for good chunk of time.
Send cards, old fashioned letters, little presents.
Schedule at least one visit a year, if possible. It's a pain (time and money wise, but you MUST)
Show them your affection. Tell them you love them, and be there.
When they are crying, even on the phone. Be quiet. Just being there means a lot.
Be very understanding, reassuring, and never argue, critizise or antagonize.
tell them you love them.
Once they pass away, understand that it's life. People go. The only think you can change is how happy you make them when they are with us. Even fro the distance, it's possible to show people you love them.

*Also, see if they need any kind of financial help. Maybe a grocery shop card would help them. they will be happy knowing that they are a big deal in your life, even if you're not physically with them.

I have felt like you so many times...
posted by Tarumba at 11:02 AM on August 12, 2010

The phone thing takes some getting used to, but it can become quite enjoyable. Try simply changing your mindset about it. Don't see it as a bother, but as a routine kind of thing. Pick the best time for you(Sunday afternoons, Monday nights) and call.

I use phone cards (relatives are abroad) so it's awesome because it's the card that hangs up, not me. My conversations usually last 2.7 hours. What you can do is make sure you have something to do afterwards. Set a time. (I think 1.5-2 hours is quite reasonable) and really devote to the conversation. It will pass in a jiffy, and you will feel like a great niece, daughter, etc. afterwards.

Also, consider asking them to call you when they are together. that way you can have a longer conversation in one sitting.

If you have cardio equipment at home. You could use it while you talk.

At any rate, after certain stage in life, parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles are like our children. We need to humor them, protect them and make them happy. If you see the conversations from this point of view, you will find it much easier to talk for long periods of time. You'd probably do the same for a kid of your own.
posted by Tarumba at 11:22 AM on August 12, 2010

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