My Dad Needs a Better Son or Daughter
April 19, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

There will soon be a death in my family. I'm worried this one's going to be especially hard and I'm not sure what to do.

Hey everyone -

So, yeah, my grandmother won't be with us much longer. Her health problems are colliding with each other in some untreatable ways and she's succumbing quickly. Some days are better than others, but it honestly looks like it's just a matter of time. I'm of course very sad and worried about this, but the person I'm most worried about right now is her son - my father.

We're not what you call a very emotionally close or open family. I've seen / heard my father cry exactly twice - once on the phone last week while we were talking about Grandma and once years before that, when he broke up a bit while giving his father's eulogy. The run up to Grandpa dying was much slower and we were more or less expecting it when it happened. Grandma has deteriorated much more quickly and I think it's hitting him pretty hard. He hasn't said much about it but I can tell he wants to say something, if that makes sense.

There's a lot of tension and partial estrangement in our family is the thing. My father and I have had a very rocky relationship and conversation never comes easily for the two of us. We've been doing a bit better over the last few years, but we're still very poor at communicating and our personal politics could hardly be any more different. We've kind of adopted a "don't talk a bunch so we don't wind up arguing" approach to things, which has kept the peace but hasn't really helped us connect. Oh, also: my Dad once confided in me that he struggled with anxiety and depression, just like his father, just like my uncles, just like, well, me. A few months later, when I mentioned this to him, he wouldn't acknowledge that the conversation happened. There's a lotta one step forward, two steps back kinda stuff like this in our relationship. My father also has difficult relationships with his siblings, my aunt and uncles - there's a lot of unresolved resentment and tension there (kind of a family tradition, I guess) and it doesn't sound like he's getting much support from them as he arranges things for Grandma.

I'm posting this here because I want to be there for my father but I'm not exactly sure how. We're not very open with each other but I love him and can tell that he's hurting even if he won't tell me about it. And maybe he doesn't want to tell me about it and I don't want to push him - I'm just not sure. Last time we spoke, when he cried, I didn't know what to say or do. Anything that it occurred to me to say sounded stupid and obvious and pointless or like the kind of thing that would make him feel worse. I felt utterly lost. I can't remember who did it now, but eventually someone cracked a joke and we chuckled our way out of the awkwardness. (this, also, is pretty standard procedure for us) I can't help feeling like I let him down there. Like that was an occasion I should have risen to. I'm his eldest son - eldest among this generation, even. My cousins are much too young, my brothers much too embroiled in their very demanding jobs. I feel like I ought to step up here, like it's time - but I'm not exactly sure what that's gonna mean. My Dad's usually the one to handle the tough stuff among his siblings, but I'm not sure who is looking out for him right now. He and my mother are still together but that relationship is, yeah, you guessed it, pretty strained and difficult due to years of unspoken tension and the like.

The other degree of difficulty is that I live seven hours away and am in my final quarter of college, making it fairly difficult to just pop over there and be with everyone like I'd like to.

I realize this is a pretty broad question, but I'm hoping the hive mind might have some advice for me on how to handle this situation. I can't be the only person to have a disconnected family like this, or to be unsure of how my role in such a family might be about to change. What have you done when someone you loved was hurting but neither of you knew how to deal with that? I can't be the only person related to a stoic. I really feel like he needs me right now, but I'm not sure what he needs me to be doing. And I feel pretty useless trying to do anything from this distance. There's a lot that's gone unsaid and unaddressed in my family for a long, long time and I've got this terrible feeling that a bunch of it could burst loose in a very destructive way with my Grandma's passing if we're not careful.

Shit, AskMe, I don't know what to do at all.

Do you have any ideas?
posted by EatTheWeek to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
So sorry to hear about your impending loss; having watched both long drawn-out deaths and almost-instant ones, I think I can fairly say both leave equally-hurting survivors. It's probably small comfort to you, but consider this: a relatively quick passing means your grandmother will have less pain.

As for what you can do for your father: just be there, assisting as needed. Grocery runs, vaccumning the house, fetching incoming relatives from the airport, any kind of errand that needs doing. This will both take some of the load off his shoulders AND give you both breathing space from each other. There's no need to stay in each other's back pockets just because there's been a death in the family.

(One other thing: is your father the oldest sibling? Sometimes the oldest feels an extra hit, just because all of a sudden, they're THE oldest person in the family.)
posted by easily confused at 4:59 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty staggered by your insight here. You appear to be an incredible person. The only thing I can say is 'go with your instincts' because they can only be good. Trust yourself. I trust you and I don't even know you.
posted by Pennyblack at 5:06 PM on April 19, 2011

Don't be afraid to just "be" with your Dad.
Sometimes just sitting together, or walking together, and being sad together is helpful.

Also, be sure to tell your Dad that you support his decisions; and even try to help him make those decisions. That is one lonely and often second-guessed part of this experience-- having to make these gut-wrenching decisions only to hear the criticism later.
posted by calgirl at 5:27 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

As I was reading your post, I very clearly pictured you being able to communicate with your father in writing in ways that you are not able to with one another in person. Why don't you sit down and write something much like the above to your father? Maybe he will write back, maybe not, but you will know that he gets the message, and can take it in privately without worrying about your reaction.

One thing about writing is that you have a record of what is said. That might inhibit your father's response, if he is inclined to share things and then deny them. But you don't seem inhibited in your message to this community, so it seems like a great way for you to reach out to him and offer your support and empathy.
posted by Scram at 5:27 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your situation EatTheWeak. I went through a very similar thing my self within the past month. Grandmother in hospital, then hospice, then passing. A father who suffers silently, difficult to get along with but loved intensely. I watched my father struggle with grief, wanting to comfort him but uncertain how to begin. My brother was so affected by seeing my father actually cry because it was such a rarity. My father too had strained relationships with his siblings, almost to the point his sister did not want to come -- even to her own mother's funeral!.

I don't know how to help even my own father through this time but I think the fact that I was there was a comfort to him. It was kind of strange because at the wake and funeral, we were all mourning my grandmother's death and even if we weren't comforting each other, it was important to be there with each other, with family. We were all grieving in our personal ways and I think being around the people you love is in itself a very healing thing. Just be there for your father. Literally, physically. There's nothing like the loss of a loved one that makes it so important to be surrounded by those you love and who love you. Your presence alone will be a comfort. For sure.
posted by loquat at 5:28 PM on April 19, 2011

I was in a similar place/time/situation when my grandmother started to decline. I'm so sorry for what you're going through. It can be hard when families or family members or stoic - you always feel that whatever you say won't be right. I grew up a very stoic family, and have found sometimes just sharing memories of your loved one can be cathartic. I discovered things about my relatives during funeral get-togethers that I hadn't known before, and it was healing to hear about their lives in other contexts. Sometimes family might not even want to talk, and that's okay too. If someone seems open to talking, talk to them. If they shut down, don't push them. Best wishes to you and your family during this time.
posted by macska at 5:29 PM on April 19, 2011

"I love you, Dad. And whatever you need me to do, I'll do."

Don't bring up the past, don't preface it with "even though..." or "but...".

Make yourself as available to him as you feel he would be comfortable with, via phone or Skype or whatever.

All you can do is love him.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:32 PM on April 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

This totally sounds like a situation where the love languages come into play. How does your dad show you that he loves you, if he's not verbally communicative? Does he make things for you? Does he help you with tasks? Does he buy things for you? Maybe start there. Doesn't have to be something big. You said he's not getting much support as he arranges things for your Grandma. Can you help him there? Are there any tasks you can do from afar? (Phone calls? Especially ones where he'll have to be on hold a long time or deal with an unpleasant person or etc. Ordering things, whether it's food or flowers or whatever task needs taking care of).

I think if he feels he wants to talk and feels awkward, the best thing you can do to maybe make him feel comfortable talking is just be a non-judgmental ear, and don't push him towards anything. For example, you already know he's not getting much support from your relatives, so it sounds like he does talk about that topic? Just let him talk about things like that, non-judgmentally. The stereotype is that men will offer solutions to problems, and women will listen and sympathize. I have found in my life that a TON of reticent men start telling me out of nowhere about really personal things, and I think that's probably a piece of it, and a piece of why men can be so reticent around each other. Obviously, I think you should help him on the things he would want help with, but I think just listening has its place too. Just let him talk, sympathize, ask sympathetic questions. If you start with that, he might open up about other things. I wouldn't bring up sensitive subjects unless he does, if he denies something you've talked about before, let it lie.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:00 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the oldest child of a very stoic dad, and I completely sympathize with your feeling unsure how to support him. I'm also the oldest "kid" in my generation, and felt really awkward about what role I should be taking in the family when my father's brother died a few years ago. What got me through it at the time was just following my instincts, being there (in person or on the phone) and trying to remind myself that no one is good at handling things like this. Sometimes muddling through this included cracking jokes, and sometimes it was just sitting there not worrying about filling up the silences.
I'd recommend being there in person when you can, but when you can't, just give him a call. I'm terrible on the phone and so is my Dad, but I would just call and ask how he was doing, and I think he appreciated the opportunity to vent, or to not talk about anything heavy as needed.
posted by ants at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2011

calgirl: Also, be sure to tell your Dad that you support his decisions; and even try to help him make those decisions. That is one lonely and often second-guessed part of this experience-- having to make these gut-wrenching decisions only to hear the criticism later.

I also had to quote this for truth. The closest I have come to this was when my 15 y.o. dog (who I loved to my personal max capacity for love) developed cancer and later died -- we grew up with him as the family pet, and I brought him with me when I moved away.

The single most comforting thing in that whole horrible ordeal was my parents telling me over and over, at every decision at every stage of his sickness, that I was making the right decisions, and doing the right thing. And that they knew I would keep making the right decisions and doing the right thing.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:11 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

"What have you done when someone you loved was hurting but neither of you knew how to deal with that? I can't be the only person related to a stoic. I really feel like he needs me right now, but I'm not sure what he needs me to be doing."

The last time I saw my father cry I was six. I brought him a cookie. This seemed to be the correct answer.

In subsequent times of emotional stress, I've mostly just BEEN there. Like, literally studied in the living room where he was sitting grieving when we had a death in the family when I was in college. Made some phone calls that he was too stressed to make. You don't really have to talk about stuff if he doesn't want to talk about stuff.

Offer to help, do what you can, and then just BE there.

From a distance, I would send "thinking of you" cards with Snoopy on them. I would not write anything mushy. Stoic dad will get the message, you don't have to spell it out. Let Hallmark do the work.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:21 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

For someone who is a stoic, suffer in silence type, the best thing to do is not to try to do anything. Conversationally. I am most comforted when someone just sort of sits there with me and lets me talk or not. We heal by talking about other things, quite often. So if dad starts talking about the lawnmower, let him talk about the lawnmower.
posted by gjc at 6:31 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

In a lot of ways, I am just like your father. There are some very good suggestions in this thread. Just be there when you can, call when you can (but don't feel you need to talk about anything in particular), and let him know you're on his side. In my family, I'm the oldest, the one who handles everything, the responsible one, and the "black sheep". When my dad died (and I took care of everything and the whole family criticized me and treated me like an outcast because I didn't want to sit around being sentimental and hypocritical), what helped me most was my boyfriend being totally on my side, being supportive when my family was treating me badly, and maintaining his sense of humor and making me laugh when I needed it. He did all of this via text messaging and IMing - it doesn't have to be in person. Just knowing he was there when I needed to vent or just talk to someone who was on my side was incredibly helpful.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:00 PM on April 19, 2011

I can't help feeling like I let him down there. didn't.

It's difficult to us to see loved ones in physical or emotional pain. It seems pretty common for the oldest kid to feel inadequate in these situations. It sounds like you may be just freaked out because you heard your Dad crying and it seemed uncharacteristic of him. Don't read too much into it. It's nothing that will be fixed by you "stepping up". Call him and your Mum every night and ask for updates. It may or may not lead to further discussion but don't feel you need to push it.

If you can get away for a couple of days, just to touch base with your folks and see your GM for an afternoon before she passes, I think you may feel a lot better. If you really can't get away, don't feel guilty because it is the end of the year and your Dad probably feels that your education is really important, too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:24 PM on April 19, 2011

If you live in an area where Hospice is available, seek it out. Hospice is not just for the person who is dying. It is a combination of services for all members of the family. Further, it provides services such as bereavement counseling and support for as much as a year after the death of the person who is the focus of the endeavor. They have been through this many times over, can act as a bridge between the two of you and can anticipate some of the things you will be experiencing. If your grandma has Medicare, the entire cost of Hospice is usually covered by it.

I have seen it in action and it is a very real comfort.
posted by Old Geezer at 7:51 PM on April 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you very much, one and all.
posted by EatTheWeek at 3:53 AM on April 20, 2011

One more thought, EatTheWeak: try to keep offering support after your grandmother's passed, the services are over and the family goes back to their lives. Not easy, I know from experience; but just because a funeral is over doesn't mean the grief is all neatly put away. Take him out to lunch once in a while (lunch is shorter than dinner: less stress for you!), do a weekly grocery run for him, whatever.

Good luck.
posted by easily confused at 9:12 AM on April 20, 2011

You two surely have one common interest or he has an interest which you are willing to pick up. Philly sports, maybe? So, call him. Talk about Boucher's game two performance in the net (amazing). He'll get that you're checking up on him and when he calls you to talk about Utley's rehab you know that he's leaning on you and that now may be the time to send him an inflatable Chooch.

It may seem like just small talk, but really, what is small talk besides a way to connect with someone when you aren't sure what to say?
posted by Loto at 9:38 AM on April 20, 2011

Your dad is so lucky to have you!

You've gotten good advice in this thread. The thing that resonated most with me from your OP is that once your grandmother is gone, your dad (and his siblings) will be orphans. It's a strange word to apply to adults, but having no parents is rough no matter how old you are, whether or not you had to move to a caretaker role before they died. You're right to consider that this new dynamic could change how everyone deals with everyone else, and how your dad deals with the resulting grief and fallout, personally, and in all of his relationships. Grieving is the worst, because everybody's "off duty" at the same time, which can result in some shockingly bad or incomprehensible behavior that wouldn't happen if everyone was feeling whole and sane. Personally, I'd try to give everyone as much of a pass as you can when things get weird; this is not the time to stoke or hold grudges if you can help it.

More practically, I found this thread very helpful right after my mom died. In addition to some tremendous emotional support, there are a few checklists of things that your dad may be tasked with where you might be able to assist. He may already have done this when his father died, but you can offer to do things like make phone calls, cancel services, and the like if you think it would be useful.

Lastly, I'm five months in, and while some things regarding losing my mom have gotten easier, there are others that have become more difficult, or that hit me hard out of the blue. Anniversaries, holidays, your dad's birthday, everyone else's birthday - these are all reminders that his mother is no longer around.

Grieving is a lonely country. Live your life, but by staying connected to your dad (and your mom - she lost someone too) after the shock and early reactions have passed, you can help them (and yourself) feel less alone. Good luck.
posted by truenorth at 6:06 PM on April 20, 2011

« Older Vegan mac and cheese, please!   |   Get me off my butt. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.