It wasn't really that nice knowing you...
August 19, 2011 4:05 AM   Subscribe

How can I comfort the loved ones of a dying person I don't like? And the dying person themselves? Snowflake details inside.

My aunt's (mother's sister) husband is dying. He has terminal lung cancer and the doctor's have given him a very short time to live. They said it could be anywhere from six weeks to 3 months at the outside.

Understandably, my aunt and their (adult) children are devastated by this news, and my mother is also saddened by it, although she's more composed. The feelings of my aunt and cousins are still very raw, and they are very upset.

The thing that makes it awkward is that my aunt's husband and I have never gotten along. He was physically and mentally abusive to my aunt and my cousins earlier in their marriage, which I have never totally forgiven him for. He's also an extreme racist and homophobe. He uses racial and homophobic slurs constantly, and is always going on and on very loudly about how this and that minority are ruining America, etc. Not being the type of person that can sit in silence about that type of thing, we have on several occasions in the past had words. For the past three or four years I have severely limited my contact with him, which had the unfortunate effect of limiting my contact with my aunt and cousins as well, since as a peculiarity of their family dysfunction, they don't really go anywhere without him, and he refuses to visit at other people's houses, instead insisting everyone visit his home. Let me make clear that this was before he was ill. Now that he is, it is of course completely understandable that he not be expected to go anywhere.

My problem is that while I feel badly for my aunt and cousins that they are going through this, I personally feel no sadness at all that he's leaving this world. I don't wish him dead, but I feel nothing about his impending death. Not happy, but not sad or grieved in any way. I feel horrible about that, but there you are.

For several weeks (since the news was discovered) my mother has been pressuring me to come with her to visit my aunt and uncle (who is at home on hospice care). My cousins will be there also. I put it off and made excuses, but I feel at last that I can't really put it off any longer, that it's a family obligation and duty that I must see to, no matter how unpleasant. So I told my mother that I would accompany her tomorrow to visit them. I am dreading it. I have no idea how to act. My aunt and cousins will likely expect me to be very sad, but I'm just not, and I've never been very good at faking emotions that I do not feel. I've been told many times that I'm aloof or a "cold fish", so this has my social anxiety meter ratcheted up to 11.

How can I be comforting to my aunt and cousins, and display empathy and sympathy, when I don't feel sad at all? What can I say to my uncle? I am capable of being civil to him and have already decided that if he makes any of his usual horrible remarks, I will just pretend to have gone profoundly and completely deaf and not engage him at all. But merely being civil and tolerant hardly seems adequate. Surely my mother, my aunt, and my cousins will expect me to be somehow comforting to him, but I'm at a total loss as to how to do that.

I would prefer advice along that line, rather than people saying I don't have to go. I really feel I do, and I promised my mother, so I must. Thanks.
posted by katyggls to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Merely being civil and tolerant" is pretty much what you have to do. Stop bringing your own feelings into it, because they're not going to analyze what you're feeling while you're there.

This visit isn't about you, it's about your aunt and cousins.
posted by xingcat at 4:12 AM on August 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Nobody enjoys visting the dying or comforting the bereaved/soon-to-be bereaved. Usually, unless you're the chief mourners, you're not necessarily going to be tearful about it either, and it's usually considered selfish if you *don't* contain your emotions and focus on the emotions of the people most directly affected by it.

Unless your aunt and cousins really are totally unreasonable, they won't think you a "cold fish" for failing to weep crocodile tears. What usually makes you a "cold fish" in other people's eyes is ignoring them in times of crisis like these. So, the best thing to do is put your own feelings aside and be there for your aunt and cousin. This is especially important considering that throughout their lives they haven't been allowed to socialize except on your uncle's terms. By staying away, you are helping him to keep them isolated.
posted by tel3path at 4:19 AM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

You don't have to feel sad for youruncle and his passing. All you have to do is reflect your compassion and grief for the real suffering his family is experiencing.
posted by availablelight at 4:20 AM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Why are you choosing to do this? You say above that it is something you feel you have to do. Why is that? Because you care for your aunt and cousins, I'd assume and your mother. That is the seed of being comforting to them. Just caring about them.

If your uncle is in hospice care, his pain and energy level are such that any kind of political argument is practically nil. As you said you can always leave the room if needed. As to your aunt and cousins, they will likely be too preoccupied by their own feelings to really dissect yours. Be kind to them. Help tidy the house, run a load of laundry, run to the store for food and prepare snacks, give them hugs, listen if they want to talk. They need support and that is one of the best things you can do right now.

In the end you should also think about the fact that you never really know a whole person. Yes, your uncle did some terrible things, but your aunt and cousins made a decision to stick by him. It sounds from what you wrote that he made at least some changes (i.e. you specifically mention the abuse was earlier in the marriage). Relationships are complicated and no person is all good or all bad. It's very likely that his family is dealing with some conflicting feelings, just like you are. You are not endorsing anything about his lifestyle or his choices or those of your family. You are loving your family by going. Just focus on that.
posted by goggie at 4:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

As a fellow human being you have more in common with him than not, but I agree with all previous posters that this visit is about the relatives who will stay on after him. Practical support for them so they can focus on spending time with him is an excellent suggestion if you feel that you must go.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 4:27 AM on August 19, 2011

Your uncle's personality and past actions, and your feelings about them, should be put aside for the duration of this visit, which is *not. about. you.* There is pain; there is suffering; there is grief; there are the thousand small, stupid jobs that must still be done even as death nears, and your aunt and cousins may simply not have the energy or time to do them. Practical empathy is scrubbing the bathroom and cooking a freezer meal and running to the grocery for supplies so you--who is unaffected by this grief--can make things easier for those who are so deeply touched by it.

I wish your family strength in this difficult time. Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:35 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn coffee's not ready.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:44 AM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: I realize that it's not about me. I really do. I only related my feelings about my uncle as a means of explaining why I don't feel sad, not to somehow suggest that his dying is inconveniencing me or something. If my question somehow communicates that, it was not intended, and the attempts to make me feel worse about not grieving for my uncle or that I'm somehow selfish for not knowing what to do are really not necessary. Believe me, I already feel like I must be a horrible person because I can seldom navigate situations exactly like this and never seem to feel the appropriate emotions for any given situation.

What I'm looking for is more practical advice on how to be useful and empathetic to my family and even to my uncle, when it doesn't come naturally to me, both because I'm a naturally awkward and aloof person who's bad at emotional stuff, and because of my complicated feelings regarding the dying person. Thank you already to those who have offered practical suggestions like doing more little deeds of kindness for my family. I find that kind of suggestion very helpful.
posted by katyggls at 5:02 AM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: You can't control how you feel. All you can do is control how you act.

And the way you should act is respectful and serious. You tell your aunt and cousins that you're so sorry about this. You ask if there's anything you can do for them. This is about it. Then you can just sit and maybe you'll have a conversation or something.

And you're sorry, not because he's dying, but because it's hurting your aunt and cousins, people you love.

So you've nothing to forgive yourself for. Your feelings are normal and appropriate. Your public face here just has to reflect the gravity of the situation, but you don't have to cry.

I wish you the best.
posted by inturnaround at 5:09 AM on August 19, 2011 [16 favorites]

the attempts to make me feel worse about not grieving for my uncle or that I'm somehow selfish for not knowing what to do are really not necessary.

I think you're projecting. Nobody here seems to be doing this.

You don't need to pretend to be sorry to see him go. There's no reason to betray yourself. If he cracks some offensive remark you can say something like, "Uncle, I realize you're not long for this world, but I don't like that kind of talk any more now than I ever did." You can be honest and respectful without being aggressive.
posted by jon1270 at 5:18 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Your aunt and cousins probably know you well enough to know that your "aloofness" is part of who you are. They aren't likely to think much of it.

I'd come armed with a few little topics to discuss - minor pleasantries that somehow relate to their family. For instance, if they are all scrabble fiends, and you recently read about scrabble in the news, you could mention that.

It's likely that this situation will be very different from what you expect. I think from reading your post that you are expecting perhaps some heartfelt discussions about your uncle and what it means to leave him and perhaps some weeping. I think it's far more likely that you'll encounter a bunch of very tired people who are occupied with practical concerns. See what's going on and how you can help. I've been present for the aftermath of death, and very little of this involved talking about my feelings or even having the chance to sit down and experience them. I helped my cousin figure out what to wear to the funeral, wrote thank you notes to people who sent flowers, etc. Look for the job that needs doing and throw yourself into it and you'll be fine.

Remember that your uncle is probably a very scared person - control and hatred stem from fear. He's probably never been able to let go and relax and accept himself and others. Underneath all of that bluster and meanness is someone who's terrified he won't be loved and his needs won't be met.

Try to remember that, and try to offer unconditional positive regard. It might also help if you can focus on some common ground you have with him - even if it's only your love for your aunt and cousins.
posted by bunderful at 5:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't see anyone trying to make you feel worse, either. Take a deep breath. It will be ok.

As others have said, the visit is for the aunt and cousins this man will leave behind. I don't believe you are required to feel sad for a particular person's passing, but if you love your aunt and cousins, and realize they are in a lot of pain, that's a sad thing, isn't it? Be polite and respectful to him, but focus on them. I think you'll do fine.
posted by Glinn at 5:23 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What I'm looking for is more practical advice on how to be useful and empathetic to my family and even to my uncle, when it doesn't come naturally to me, both because I'm a naturally awkward and aloof person who's bad at emotional stuff, and because of my complicated feelings regarding the dying person.

Alright, here we go. When you arrive:

Demeanor: Very, very serious and solemn. Concerned about your relatives.
When you greet them: Hug. "I am so sorry." In your mind, if you need to frame is this way, you are so sorry they are experiencing pain. "I wish there was something I could do for you all. Is there anything I can do? I will always be here for you."

Observe their demeanor. Actually, they could all be joking around. You might not think this is likely but you could be surprised. If they're joking around, go for "calmly pleasant" -- smiling, responding to the things others say but not saying much yourself. Otherwise, the default demeanor is, again, very very serious.

To your uncle: "It's good to see you." (You can think up in your own mind a reason that this is true -- it's good to see him because your seeing him makes your aunt happy or whatever). "Is there anything I can get you right now?" Tone of general concern and willingness to do anything to make him comfortable. You know, your uncle could surprise you. He might be at a point of reconsidering his ways. Sure, he could also still behave just as badly as ever. But, be open to the idea that he might be reconsidering things. Honestly I think the best thing you can do is be open to forgiving him. If you have trouble with this, just think back on all the things you've done in your lifetime that you would hope people forgive you for. That always makes that sort of thing easier for me.

When you are alone with your relatives again, try to muster up ANYTHING genuine, substantial and positive to say about him. Reiterate that you're always there for them, and always there for him, no caveats.

I've had several distant, elderly relatives die before, in my childhood, teens and earlier 20s, and am quite familiar with the feeling you describe, the sense that your relatives are grieving badly but you don't feel anything yourself. I never found out what grieving was until my dog died, and then I found out in a major way. And I got a really good sense of -- for me-- what helps from others. So, it might be a helpful mental exercise for you to imagine how you would feel if it were someone you really, strongly loved in this situation -- someone who (like in the case of my dog), people might not really understand your feelings the same way. What would you want people to do in that situation?
posted by Ashley801 at 5:28 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I apologize if I am projecting, I probably am, but that's how I was interpreting things like, "Your uncle's personality and past actions, and your feelings about them, should be put aside for the duration of this visit, which is *not. about. you.*". I might be ascribing a tone to that that's not there, but the unnecessary emphasis on "not about you" comes across as critical to me. But I probably am a little keyed up about this, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.
posted by katyggls at 5:29 AM on August 19, 2011

You can always hold his hand and say nothing. He may well not have the energy to talk, or he may be too whacked out on pain meds to be the person you are accustomed to dealing with. You would be amazed at how comforting hand-holding can be to the dying. Just be present.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:29 AM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: I've been in this situation and I've found it's great to do something practical when you are visiting. If my hands are busy, I find it easier to adapt to a difficult social situation. Bring some homemade [or whatever] cakes, help make tea to serve with them.

Follow your mother's lead in conversation and don't feel like you have to make any deep or profound pronouncements. If your uncle makes painfully racist or sexist etc comments, let it go. And, it helps to consider that this is probably awkward for him and your aunt/cousins as well.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:32 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You have the right to feel however you want to feel. It is OKAY. Reward yourself after this visit by seeking nurturing for yourself.
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:41 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how to act. My aunt and cousins will likely expect me to be very sad, but I'm just not, and I've never been very good at faking emotions that I do not feel

I don't think anyone expects you to act in a certain way other than to show compassion - which you can for your aunt and cousins:

My problem is that while I feel badly for my aunt and cousins that they are going through this
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:04 AM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: Ugh, I do understand your struggle. My maternal grandmother was an evil, bitter woman. For whatever twisted reason, she did not want my mother married and out of her control. My father wasn't good enough for my mother and my grandmother always ran him down to her, to us children. She doted on our cousins and treated my family like unwashed unmentionables. Not that I'm still bitter, but imagine Christmas where three of the children got $100.00+ ( in 1970s dollars) spent on each of their presents and the four of us got a pair of socks, or the one time I got one pair of cotton panties, at 9 years old.

It never really got that much better, I would never have seen her of my own volition, if my mother hadn't bought a house for the two of them to live.

So the night I got the call that she was in the hospital suddenly, and it was close to the end, I did go. I ended up being the one holding her hand when she passed. I have a reputation for being cold, emotionless much of the time. But it served well in this case, I was able to be the one to make all the phone calls to other relatives because my mother and aunt were too stricken.

I guess what I'm saying, your role can be the rock too, you will have a clearer head and can help make his passing easier for the family members you do care about.
posted by Jazz Hands at 6:10 AM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: Well you can go in thinking you are supporting your aunt, you can feel sorry for his suffering, but you don't have to forgive or feel bad for how you feel about him.

My parents were both abusive. My dad still to this day is very abusive to my mom and I know it won't change. My mom is verbally/mentally abusive too but I also know anyone who puts up with abuse for 50+ years will have a change in their personality. I hate that they are this way to each other and to me. I will never forgive them for it. I also find it incredibly sad, disgusting, and pathetic that they stayed together to create this miserable life. What a complete waste.

But they are both sick. Dad with chronic heart issues and mom with terminal cancer. Every time they are in the hospital I'm there. In fact I have rerouted work/life schedules to take care of them when needed. Why? Because when I needed help, they were there. I dont' have to like them as people, their actions, etc. but I cannot leave them alone when they are in need. It's my wiring (however right or wrong that may be).

So what I'm saying is you don't have to give up your feelings or values for things you don't believe in, not like, etc. You can remain cold, aloof, neutral but you can also be compassionate for someone suffering physically and for your aunt/cousins mentally. Be there to support. You don't even have to say anything to him. I honestly believe deep down inside both my parents feel horrible for who they are but they cannot stop. And this is something they have to live with. I believe your uncle knows he was an asshole and this is something he has to live with until he dies. And that's just sad neither will or did change for the better. They leave a memory that is tainted and sad. No one should leave this earth where the term 'asshole" is in conversation with them. We all have the power to change. Some just don't and it's their loss.

Be there for your aunt/cousin. Even if it's outside the room/take them for lunch. If they're asking you to come, go.

Good luck.
posted by stormpooper at 6:48 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Stop guessing what people expect. Your feelings toward your uncle are irrelevant here. You're not going to "pay your respects" or anything like that, you're going to help out your family. Like stormpooper and others point out, you don't even need to engage your uncle at all if you don't want - you're not there for him.

Take your aunt and cousins to lunch, or bring them food and water if they want to stay near uncle. See if you can figure out what needs doing and do it - that's preferable to asking - but if you're not sure, they'll appreciate being asked: "What can I do?"
posted by canine epigram at 7:32 AM on August 19, 2011

Nthing the "keep busy" recommendation. It's amazing how many household things pile up in times like these, and going out for groceries or dry cleaning, doing laundry or caring for a pet might be the thing that helps them the most.
posted by lily_bart at 7:40 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I sat by my best friend's side at her mother's deathbed for nearly six hours with my friend's sister and cousins. Her sister hated me, and the feeling was mutual. I didn't care much for her mother, but my friend wanted me to be there, so there I was.

The best thing to do is, as other people said, focus on your family -- the ones you love -- and make this traumatic time as easy as possible for them. They want you there to help them in their grieving. They need the support of family and friends around them during their time of loss. Even if you don't see this as a great loss, they will. Comfort them and be civil to him. It's probably the easiest way to get through this with your sanity in tact.
posted by patheral at 8:00 AM on August 19, 2011

Since your mother's had more contact with the family lately, I would ask her what you can do to help, since practical help is probably what they need right now. Ask her if they would like you to take them out to dinner or bring some over, if they need shopping or laundry done, need a car serviced, etc. That will help to alleviate a bit of the burden they're dealing with and give you something constructive to do.

Be kind to yourself; you may not feel like you're doing enough, but you certainly are. Posting this question shows how hard you're trying to do this right, even though it's very difficult for you. You're putting yourself out to do something kind, and that's wonderful. Everyone who matters will know this and appreciate it.

And I'd just like to mention here that having conflicting feelings over the death of a family member is probably the rule, rather than the exception. I know I'm in this position right now with my father, who's declining due to dementia and wasn't much of a father to me. I do what I can do, don't deny my feelings, and forgive myself for not feeling the way I "should" about him.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:51 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are refreshingly honest, and I think that will help. Be loving to your aunt and cousins, listen and listen some more, and sympathize with their loss and the emotional toll of attending a death. Be available to listen after the death, when their feelings may be complicated by his behavior in life. You have the opportunity to show compassion to a dying person who you do not like. Compassion is in short supply, and you can grow a great deal from showing it to this less than stellar man. This is not hypocrisy; you don't have to agree that he lived a good life, but you can be kind, and show sorrow for his pain and fear. In Buddhism (No, I am not an expert), compassion is the path to enlightenment. Works for me.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

WorkingMyWayHome has some great advice. Does your mom know your feelings regarding your uncle? Can you ask her for some ideas, or even to take the lead in the visit re: keeping the conversation going?

Also, maybe you can focus on your cousins, since they're presumably somewhat close to you in age. Ask them to go for a beer or coffee or smoothie or a just a walk or whatever. Maybe they would be glad to get out of the house. (After you go through the pleasantries with your aunt and uncle.) If not, maybe they'd like to play some cards or a video game or ???
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:26 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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