How can I best support my in-laws given very different communication styles?
March 3, 2012 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Looking for some advice as to how to handle an impending death in the family I married into and with whom I am very close. While I come from a family that talks about everything, my husband comes from a family that talks about most things, but not at all about health issues and death. I would like to be able to support them in the days and weeks ahead but I have no idea how to navigate within their framework.

My husband's grandfather (the patriarch of a family that owned businesses and worked and lived together in very close and unique quarters) is in the ICU and very likely will not go home. My husband is with him right now, and our communication is very open and honest in all things, but at the moment he's the only source of actual information about what is happening. This is unusual within his family-- his is the type where someone will get sick (cancer, for example) and not tell anyone until the treatments are finished-- and even then it's alarmingly casual, in passing. If they are discussed at all, health matters are always played down and often the subject is changed. I come from the polar opposite sort of family, communication-wise, and so this is all rather foreign to me. I don't believe there is a right or wrong way to handle things, I'm just not used to this way. My husband finds his family's communication style quite frustrating; our conversations about feelings are completely open, so I feel comfortable in being able to support him, but my in-laws do things so differently that I'm not sure what's comforting and what is overstepping boundaries.

Looking for thoughts and advice from people who either come from a family that handles health and death in the same way as my in-laws, or people who have married into or otherwise become close with anyone who handles such matters in the "don't talk about it" manner. I would like to be able to support them but I'm not sure how, exactly-- should I follow their lead in all conversations and not bring anything up unless they do, or should I be open and ask questions about their feelings in an effort to support them? Perhaps I'm overthinking this but I don't want to make things harder or cause additional pain. I would like to be there for them, though, and I'm not sure if that means that I need to approach things in a manner very different from my own.
posted by mireille to Human Relations (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My experience with this is that you can talk to individual members of the family about these things when you're one on one, in private. Otherwise the family/group dynamic will keep everyone quiet. When you have a little time alone you can follow their lead and ask open-ended questions like "how are you doing with all this?"

In general, though, don't push it unless it's necessary (i.e. someone isn't getting appropriate medical treatment--sounds like that's not an issue for you.)
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:58 AM on March 3, 2012

My family sounds like your husband's family.

In general, I would avoid asking too many questions, and certainly no detailed questions. Asking "how are you doing?" and "is there anything I can do for you?" are fine - but I wouldn't ask any questions about your husband's grandfather's illness, health, or treatment, unless someone in the family starts the conversation. Even then, I would keep things vague and supportive, and not inquisitive, curious, or informative.

Silence in families like these is completely ok. Listen. Be patient. Let them lead the conversations. Offer some memories and stories if you have some to share. I can't stress this enough--do not ask many questions.
posted by raztaj at 8:06 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I come from your husband's family (and am one of them). my father never mentioned his own cancer until it was cured and my husband's stage IV melanoma diagnosis last week has been shared but not discussed. In my experience you can help most by being there - doing small things like cooking or books from Amazon or dry cleaning runs, but the value of companionable silence cannot be overestimated.
posted by mozhet at 8:45 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with mozhet: companionable silence is a godsend. If you do feel moved to say something -- and sometimes it does feel right -- I suggest simply sharing how you feel. "It makes me very sad to think about losing Fred." With a hug or hand squeeze if that's appropriate.

I do disagree with the "How are you doing?" suggestion. Even to a super-sharer like myself, that question is a communication killer. Ditto "Is there anything I can do for you?" They sound caring, but somehow don't work. To someone who doesn't communicate feelings well, "how are you doing" has only one answer: okay, thanks. And I have never known the generic "is there anything I can do" to result in an actual suggestion. Instead, offer something -- anything -- specific. "Can I get you a cup of coffee" "Can I run to the store and pick up some oranges?" It doesn't even have to be a good suggestion, because it's just to open the door to a specific suggestion from the other person.

I am a big fan of hand rubs. Offering to give someone, sick person or family member, a hand rub and whipping out a small bottle of lotion from your pocket is a miracle worker. Even older males, who are most likely to be suspicious, will usually let you do it if you frame it as "this is something that's been very nice." And it is very nice.

Your husband is very lucky to have you to help him through this.
posted by kestralwing at 10:14 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't talk or try to get them to talk, do something concrete for them, like make dinner, offer to sit with the sick person to give them time off, listen if they do talk but do not offer a lot of advice or commiseration or talk about feelings. My family were like your husband's family and I have to admit I am as well. Yes, be specific if asking if there are things you can do or if you know of things that would be helpful and not obtrusive, just do them.
posted by mermayd at 10:40 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

My in-law family is along these lines. My mother-in-law died in January, so I have recently been there. I agree that doing things is the way to go. Taking care of cooking, dishes, laundry, dry cleaning, cleaning up, making sure the trash gets put out, shopping, general fetching and carrying were all gratefully received. Being my husband's support (as he is more emotive than the rest), was crucial, and it sounds like you will serve that function for your husband as well. Emotions, though being repressed, are amped up during this time, and my husband's ability to vent to me enabled him to deal with some of his brother's behavior without getting angry and upsetting his mother. One thing my husband did for my Mother-in-law was to read to her while she was in bed during the last days. Other people read to her as well. She liked to be very active, and hated being in bed, even as she was dying, so reading helped, and hearing the sound of familiar voices helped, even in the last hours. (She liked everything from the sports pages to the financial section and election season news, as well as familiar books.)

Best of luck to you and your husband.
posted by gudrun at 8:10 PM on March 3, 2012

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