My sister-in-law is probably dying
December 27, 2010 10:01 PM   Subscribe

My sister-in-law is probably dying from metastatic breast cancer. I live about 1500 miles from them and I can't afford to go there, both from the cost of travel and the time off from work being uncompensated. How do I handle this situation when the terrible moment arrives?

She has been treated successfully with chemo for the last few years, but now it is in her brain. From what I have read, the survival time for her is likely counted in months. He is religious (Christian) and I am an athiest. What do I say? How do I say it?

P.S.: He has not communicated with me about this nor about the previous bouts with cancer his wife has had. We are all in our fifties.
posted by noonknight to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's difficult for me to imagine what things between you and your brother are like, or which constraints (beyond physical distance) exist, and why.

I don't know, in my mad family, we're used to butting into the most important of each other's business. Instead of anticipating what you will have to do in some months, could you call him now (as well as later) to express your love and support? I would think that whatever your differences, he might appreciate the effort. And remember it in future.

If you feel you can do that, you could maybe explain that so-and-so had relayed the news of the metastasis. That you're sorry to be bold, or to interfere at a difficult time, but that you didn't want to miss an opportunity to reach out. (Don't mention what you've read about outcomes, though.)

It might also help you feel easier about not visiting, and explaining why.

You could just ask how he and she are doing, and about what help they're getting. And tell him how sad you are that this is happening, and that you love him.

You don't need to offer reassurances about the meaning of your SIL's illness, or death, when it comes; just don't comment on the comforts he finds and repeat that you are sorry.

Though it doesn't sound like you have a history of practical exchange of support, there are a few things you could do from a distance, if it's not too awkward. It can be useful to offer specific kinds of help, because carers often struggle to articulate their needs, or may be embarrassed to. You could research resources in his area (including, e.g., hospices, housekeeping services). You could send them DVDs, for distraction. Or (links to online) photo albums, for commemoration. Or just send brief 'thinking of you' emails now and then.
posted by nelljie at 1:08 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you're going through this.

I agree that you should get in touch now as well as when SIL actually dies. Just say how sorry you are, and listen to your brother and your SIL if they want to talk. If they want to talk about god, try not to argue with them or disagree, because you'll likely regret it later -- if they say something about heaven or something, you can say "That must be such a comfort to you." or even just murmur encouragingly.

You can also send cards and emails, even if they don't say anything much. When my sister was dying, she was always, always touched by people who reached out.
posted by cider at 4:54 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

P.S.: He has not communicated with me about this nor about the previous bouts with cancer his wife has had.

I think you should clarify for us what this means. Do you mean, he has not told you that she has cancer, and he has not told you that it metastasized to her brain? It is a secret of sorts, or you do not have a good relationship with them? Do they think you don't know that she is sick at all?
posted by Houstonian at 5:09 AM on December 28, 2010

If they're not up to talking, one of the best things you can do is try to give them as much time as possible together without having to worry about all of the little things in life that can get in the way. Even just sending takeout can make a difference.

My mother and her siblings took up a family collection and used the money to buy gift certificates for a maid service when her brother's wife was dying of cancer.
posted by Alison at 6:54 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I too am sorry for your family -- this is very difficult. I do know that breast cancer that has metastasized to the brain -- while maybe not survivable in your SIL's case -- may not be as immediately fatal as one might think.

My feeling is that you should phone up your brother having put aside all past issues/challenges/negative feelings and most importantly, preconceptions about how the conversation will go. Be truly available to him without saying "I"m here for you, I'm supporting you," or other too-touchy-feely language. Just use your old language together, whatever that is, even just hmmning and yessing. When I was sick, my dad, famously uncomfortable with talking about his 'feelings' used to come over, go to the garage and fiddle with our car, all the while complaining about how we'd all been neglecting it. It was his way of doing what he could. Figure out your way, and do that. Also, I think you ought to try and go. For yourself.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:39 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't gone through the issues of terminal disease with a close relative, but when I was in the hospital for 4-6 weeks, the things I most remember about friends being kind was all the little favors. Bringing food for my wife to snack on, etc. If you can't visit, send stuff. Unless they're fabulously wealthy, send some money. More importantly, just pick up the phone and call. Express your love and support. Talk to your brother, and follow his lead about whether you should talk to her.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:21 AM on December 28, 2010

A lot of people try to face such large issues by themselves, and can be very difficult to reach. My brother died of lung cancer from smoking. I went out of my way to make my mom and my brother aware of a whole host of support services to make the inevitable easier, but they still tried to bear everything themselves. Just sayin' don't blame yourself when they don't respond completely to your efforts to connect. You might benefit from reading up on some typical thought patterns people face in the situations--I learned that withdrawal is one stage people undergo when they face a terminal situation.
posted by effluvia at 9:07 AM on December 28, 2010

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