How do we prepare for a future without someone we love?
June 16, 2011 7:40 AM   Subscribe

My mother-in-law just got a serious cancer diagnosis and will likely have less time with us than we thought. How can I make sure that my daughter knows her even if she isn't around?

My mother-in-law is one of my favorite people. A few days ago her doctors discovered a large tumor in her lung that cannot be removed surgically. There is hope that she'll be able to live a few years with chemo treatment, but the long-term odds are frightening.

My husband and I are distraught at this news, but we are especially sad that our baby daughter will likely miss the chance to get to know her grandma. She is only four months old, so there is a chance she won't have any memories of this wonderful person of her own. She's an only grandchild for now and she is loved quite fiercely by her grandmother.

To my mother-in-law's credit, she sounds upbeat and ready for a fight and she's otherwise in good athletic shape. She's in her early sixties and spry. We'll be visiting this weekend so we can see her before the chemo starts, and for now she has lots of energy.

What can we do to make some family memories that will take us into the future? I scheduled a whole family photo session for Sunday. I love this AskMe answer, especially the idea of hiring a journalist to take down her life story and dictating birthday letters. But what do we do about grandkids who haven't been born yet? Should they get personal messages, too?

Also, how do we ask such a big favor? Right now I feel like I'd be saying "Hi! You're DYING so please do this mound of homework. KTHXBYE!"

Ideally, I would have all of my daughter's grandparents and one remaining great grandparent do the same thing, but time is precious right now for my mother-in-law, so we're trying to focus on her.

We will be in Omaha, NE, so any answers that are centric to that area would be welcome. Especially if they pertain to areas that are not currently flooded by the Missouri River.
posted by Alison to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think it would be great if you could tape record or video her reading children's books out loud (if she can speak ok). Then you could play them for any grandchildren down the line and maybe include her in a bedtime or birthday ritual.
posted by rmless at 7:52 AM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

As datapoint - my maternal grandmother died of cancer when I was a year old. I have no memories of her. But I do still have a stuffed cuddly bear she gave to me as a baby. It was my most favourite stuffed animal and was more or less loved to death as in, it is threadbare, limbs are barely hanging on and my mother had to repair the nose/snout a few times. And it is still in my possession over thirty years after her death.

As to practical suggestions - I would be extremely reluctant to ask somebody undergoing chemo to do a lot of homework as you put it.

Why don't you ask her how she would like to be part of her grandchild(ren)'s life? How she would like to be remembered and what she would enjoy doing and be comfortable doing? At the end of the day this isn't about you being able to present birthday messages to your child. Your child will grow up happily without them. It's about what your mother in law wants and how you and your husband deal with those losses.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:53 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

So sorry to hear about your mom's illness.

I jumped on to share that I have a tape recording of my grandfather (who passed away when I was 6) reading stories to me and I really, really treasure it.

I also 2nd koahiatamadl's idea of simply asking her what she would like. It may feel awkward at first to bring it up, but I imagine this issue has occurred to her, too.
posted by pupstocks at 8:01 AM on June 16, 2011

I'm so sorry to hear about this, Alison.

My grandparents died when I was young, and one of the things I treasure most is some video tapes my father had taken throughout his life of his parents. I've loved being able to have those glimpses of my grandparents and their lives. I love knowing the sound of their voices. I didn't get the chance to know them, but these videos help.

So, if possible this weekend, just turn on a video camera. Let your daughter (and your future nieces and nephews) get to see your mother-in-law at the breakfast table, being her normal, everyday, lovely self. Give them the chance to know her a little better.
posted by punchtothehead at 8:27 AM on June 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

My mother passed away a few years ago from pancreatic cancer. FWIW, we only had 4 months after the diagnosis and her condition deteriorate rapidly, so I had to scramble to get things in order.

I used a voice recorder to capture some of the mundane moments like just watching tv or eating dinner. I didn't tell her when I was recording because I didnt want anything to feel scripted or forced. We also tried more formal q and a sessions but it felt too staged.

I also had her fill out a grandmother book. I'm not sure of the exact name, but basically it is a blank book that has questions about your mother. Question include her family tree, what she remembers about your daughter, and questions about you.
posted by burlsube at 8:28 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just want to say that a favorite pastime of our toddler is to watch videos, on our computer, of children's stories being read by family members who are not close geographically. Each trip to visit relatives, I try to get a couple more.

So I will nth the suggestion of having your mother-in-law read a story or recite a poem or sing a song for the video camera. If she's up for a longer session, recounting some interesting bit of family history or some recollections from her girlhood will be gems beyond price some day in the future.

If you ask other relatives to do the same, she will not feel singled out in any ominous way. And you will have a video library your child will adore.
posted by wjm at 10:31 AM on June 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

It might be a lot of work, but what about making time capsules that your daughter opens on milestone birthdays? Say, 5 years, 10 years, 16 years, 21 years (or whatever number appeals to you). They could include age-appropriate messages, pictures, articles, gifts, etc.
posted by Gorgik at 12:24 PM on June 16, 2011

Take pictures of your mother-in-law holding your baby. Take pictures of her with other members of the family. Take pictures of her at events like family dinners, birthdays, or other such occasions. Don't force her to take a picture, just do it as what ought to be the natural process of capturing pleasant memories, even the day-to-day stuff.

I say this because my paternal grandfather passed away from cancer when I was too young to really remember him. Growing up I only knew him by his gravestone, and that I have his name as part of mine. I'd hear stories of how he lived, his experiences as seen through the eyes of my father, but I never knew what he looked like. I think for the most part I knew we were related, but that was about it. There are a lot of old photos of my childhood, but my grandfather was not in any of them. I think perhaps my parents did not have a camera during the time he was alive.

Fast-forward to my adult years, and while helping my parents move into a new house I chance upon an old photo album I had never seen before. It was of my parents' wedding. On one of the pages was a short, skinny man standing next to the young version of my dad at a receiving line (where the newly-married couple greets guests entering the reception). For the first time I saw what my grandfather looked like, and I distinctly remember a sudden feeling of... guilt? Nostalgia? I don't know.

I just know that something inside me clicked and I felt very emotional and sensitive to the transience of life. I suddenly wanted to know more about my grandfather, about what he was really like, how his values may have influenced my father's, and I guess since I was now an adult my dad was able to tell me the unvarnished truth. I don't need to get into specifics of either the good or bad things that my grandfather experienced, nor the honorable or questionable ethics, prejudices, and practices in his job and family. Suffice to say I got at least a more-complete picture of him that I never had growing up, and I think that will have to do for now.

So if you have a camera, take your photos. Don't make your mother-in-law mug for the picture; in fact it might be preferrable to have more natural photos. That way, when your child grows older, she will see the pictures and while she may not know the personal joy of "being with grams" she will at least see that grandma was a happy part of her life. I think even though your daughter may not get to know grandma, at least having a memento of actual togetherness to go along with whatever stories you choose to tell will give your child a better "picture" of where she came from.

And perhaps you could ask your mother-in-law to tell YOU her story and her experiences, and YOU note them down for later. Perhaps work it into conversation by spending more time with her and with your daughter. I think it's much easier for your parents to recount their past in a casual setting, prompted by your questions, than it is for them to write it down themselves or speak to a journalist. And it might strengthen your own familial bonds. And ideally your daughter will do the same with you, for her children, but I'm starting to digress. Sorry.

It's good you're trying to capture these memories. I wish you and yours the best.
posted by CancerMan at 12:52 PM on June 16, 2011

My father died quite suddenly when my baby was about six weeks old. So we didn't really get the chance to prepare. Still, he's a real person in my son's mind. A fair number of bedtime stories I tell him regularly are about things that happened with me and my dad when I was a kid. Sometimes I tell him about how my dad held and played with him. I show him as many pictures as I can.

In some respects, it was easier for me because during the time that I was really numb with grief, he was too little to need to be told any of these things. By the time he was old enough to hear the stories and understand them, I was ready to tell them. It's been good for both of us. I love that his face lights up when he sees a picture of my dad.

So, you don't need to make a lot of work for your mother-in-law. Do what you can relatively easily, and ask *her* if there are any particular things she's like to do, or like you to do.

Good wishes to you and yours.
posted by bardophile at 1:17 PM on June 16, 2011

As the child who was born after my grandmother died, with an older sister who has strong memories of her, I would hesitate about any of the suggestions that you have her prepare letters or other gifts for your current daughter only. I would be immensely hurt if my sister had had ongoing gifts and letters from our grandmother when I didn't, even if I knew intellectually that it wasn't a slight intended personally. I enjoy seeing pictures of our grandmother holding my sister when she was a baby, and I know those mean a lot to my sister (and our mother). I would have loved recordings of her voice, whether it was telling her own stories or reading us books. My mother has always told me stories about her mother, taken us to visit my grandmother's sister and stepmother, and otherwise reinforced my connection to her family. I feel like I know who my grandmother was; while it will always be a source of great sadness to me that I didn't get to meet her, she's not gone from our lives.
posted by katemonster at 3:04 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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