How to keep a difficult phone call from imploding?
May 17, 2013 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Need to update an out of the loop narcissistic sibling about our Mother's declining health. Wish do do this without fueling her issues and having it turn into a blame game. Snow storm details ahead!

Background: Four middle aged children raised by parents who meant well but made their share of mistakes. Two of us live near our parents, two of us live out of state. Three of us have good to great parental relationships. With time we developed the maturity to realize that while we may not have always received what we wanted our parents always operated from a place of love and did the best they could given their own issues/foibles.

The fourth (Raylene) has always been a classic middle child and has nurtured a good sized chip on her shoulder. She turns every event inward and interprets any family interaction as personal criticism and lack of recognition for the perceived wrongs she has suffered. Her actions over the years became worse instead of better. It would take a book to highlight the hurtful behavior she has indulged in.

Our Father has always been abrupt, impatient and poor at articulating love and approval. As many men of his generation he expressed his feelings by being the best provider he could be and tried to teach by example.

Our Mother's primary focus in life was her husband. She followed his lead in family matters. She has Parkinson's and has been steadily loosing abilities and options for the last 5 years or so.

Present:

The youngest (Deedee) has always been the family peacemaker and has (due to proximity, personality and close relationship) been involved on a daily basis with helping to care for our Mother during her progressive decline. She works fulltime, has a husband and child and maintains involvement in a wide variety of social and charitable endeavors. Deedee became the last of the siblings to become so frustrated with Raylene's actions that she joined the rest of us in no longer putting forth the effort to stay in touch this past year. To be honest, I don't know how Deedee can juggle so many obligations and stay sane.

Our brother helps the parents a great deal, but like our Father, does so in a more pragmatic less hands on manner. He is able to communicate man-to-man with Father so has taken on the task of being Dad's right hand and handling much of the details of medical issues.

Brother and Deedee are in daily contact and work well together. Brother and I get on fine but with his frequent travel due to work seldom phone each other. Deedee keeps us all in touch. Deedee and I text/email frequently and usually phone at least once a week.

Raylene has made no attempt to keep in touch with our parents or any of the siblings. She has not called our Mother since January. She last saw our Mother a year ago when she flew into town for just under 24 hours for Mother's 75th birthday. (Siblings had planned the party and let Raylene know as soon as the plans were made.) Prior to that she had visited the area for 10 days with her children, staying at Deedee's. During that visit she spent a total of 2 hours alone with Mother because "It is just so difficult to see her like that" and bursts into tears. That was almost 3 years ago. We have also been aware of several trips she made to the area (Facebook) where she never contacted any family member.

Our Father has been taxed mentally, physically and emotionally during this period. He has amazed us with the level of care he has given. He (who always believed in treating his children equally) has become very saddened and disgusted with Raylene's treatment towards Mother. And to be honest, just no longer has it in him to be subjected to her emotional outbursts and accusations.

The issue:

Mother has begun a new level of decline. Medications are not helping much anymore. Our Father finally realized he could no longer care for her at home. Within a week of acknowledging this Mother was moved to a very nice assisted living facility, moving in the day after Mother's Day.

The prior week was a roller coaster of dealing in details (largely Deedee and our brother who lives in the area), being aware of our Father's level of grief and being sure he was ok, breaking the news to Mother, etc. I've been active in suggestions, decisions and brainstorming from afar. I have traveled frequently to assist over the the years and am ready to do so again.

We had assumed Raylene would at least call on Mother's Day and our Father was going to update her at this point. She did not call. She did send a card. She has not inquired about her Mother's condition in any manner since she last called in January. Our Mother can not dial a phone. Our Father has been too overwhelmed trying to keep Mother healthy, clean and fed to call anyone except for local siblings when he needs immediate help. Deedee has been putting in a good 20+ hours a week helping with Mother and really does not have the energy to deal with Raylene's histrionics on top of that.


Raylene's Facebook postings for the year continue to rant about how awful her family treats her and have had some odd alluding to possible psychiatric issues.

I've volunteered to call Raylene and give her the update. I tired of being rebuffed each time I attempted contact and stopped trying years ago.

My goals are to calmly let Raylene know the reality of Mother's health and where she is living. Once Raylene knows then it is her choice whether she calls, visits or doesn't. The rest of us siblings only care as far as knowing Mother loves her and would want to see her.

How do I maneuver her tendency to turn each situation into a personal affront? How do I make it clear to her that she needs to pull up her big girl panties and realize that this is not about her? How do I convey that any anger and listing of past wrongs will simply add too much stress to Father and Deedee and ultimately Mother?

I am considering calling Raylene's husband first to give him a heads up. He is a nice fellow and loves Raylene very much. His dysfunctions match well with hers and consequently he has never considered that there may be another side to her family issues.

Any suggestions of what to say and how to avoid this minefield of emotional buttons is appreciated! Thanks for wading through this massive soap opera.
posted by cat_link to Human Relations (25 answers total)
 
Why call when you can write?
posted by jon1270 at 2:23 PM on May 17, 2013 [25 favorites]


Seconding jon1270. Put this in an email. Given the way you've described her behavior, a phone call is going to be unpleasant at best no matter how you try to control it on your end. Putting it in writing will also give you the opportunity to provide her with your mother's new address, since mailing cards seems to be the main way she wishes to stay in contact. Keep it brief, to the point, and unemotional - you're just communicating the information here.
posted by something something at 2:26 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was going to say, just send a very matter-of-fact email to Raylene. Explain that your mother is in a decline, that she's been moved to assisted living.

Tell her that you want her to be kept in the loop. Don't ask her for anything.

That's all that's required.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Don't engage, only inform. You can't make her "pull up her big girl panties". She needs to decide to do that for herself. So, all you can do is let her know what's going on and ler her make her own decisions.

"Hi Rayleene, This is Cat_Link. Look, Mom has taken a sudden decline. Dad is still at home and can be reached there. Mom has moved into an assisted living facility. I wanted you to know in case you wanted to reach out to her. We don't know how much longer she will be with us. Hope you are well."

That's it. The end. Either by phone or email, whichever is best for your communication style.

All the best to you and your family. It sounds like you're all doing amazingly well, despite it all.
posted by absquatulate at 2:29 PM on May 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Given Raylene's extreme limitations, I would snail mail or email her the simple facts: Mom is now in assisted living at xxxx address. Dad is coping as best he can and still lives at home. Period. It is doubtful that Raylene will show up to share the care, or even send a card, but you will have done what needs to be done. Concentrate on your parents, not Raylene's shortcomings.
posted by Cranberry at 2:31 PM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Family drama sucks. However, there is no need to invite any here.

You have important information to give; give it as neutrally as you can. "We thought you ought to know, Mother's condition has become much more serious, and she's had to move to ___. Here's her address and phone number; she would love to hear from you."

How do I make it clear to her that she needs to pull up her big girl panties and realize that this is not about her? How do I convey that any anger and listing of past wrongs will simply add too much stress to Father and Deedee and ultimately Mother?

You don't. Referring to old drama is an opening salvo to create more.
posted by zompist at 2:35 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do I make it clear to her that she needs to pull up her big girl panties and realize that this is not about her? How do I convey that any anger and listing of past wrongs will simply add too much stress to Father and Deedee and ultimately Mother?

"Raylene, this is not about you, so please don't try to pretend that it is. Mom would love to hear from you, so please reach out to her when you can. Bye."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mother has begun a new level of decline. Medications are not helping much anymore. Our Father finally realized he could no longer care for her at home. Within a week of acknowledging this Mother was moved to a very nice assisted living facility, moving in the day after Mother's Day.

Send this to Raylene via email or Facebook message. And leave it at that.
posted by raisingsand at 2:48 PM on May 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


You should not be the one to contact Raylene because you have way way too much resentment towards her.

It's possible Raylene was not treated as well as you were growing up. You are making this about Raylene and old wounds, I suppose as a distraction from what's going on with your mom, maybe?

I get it, but it's cruel.

Let someone else email her.
posted by jbenben at 2:57 PM on May 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


I would send that brief polite email.
posted by BenPens at 2:57 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Raylene, this is not about you, so please don't try to pretend that it is..."

Goodness no.

Stick to

"My goals are to calmly let Raylene know the reality of Mother's health and where she is living."

that. Great. As for

"Once Raylene knows then it is her choice whether she calls, visits or doesn't."

...right, so, stick to the first part and forget all the stuff about "big girl panties." Deliver the message without drama by not bringing drama into it.

You write

"Raylene has made no attempt to keep in touch with our parents or any of the siblings"

and detail her avoidance, and yet:

"...really does not have the energy to deal with Raylene's histrionics on top of that."

Perhaps you have a bit of a not-uncommon dynamic where Raylene is established in everybody's mind as whatever she was some years back, not as she is now, which seems to be: nearly non-existent. She goes to town, doesn't visit. She doesn't bother to call. Etc. That makes it sound like there aren't actually "histrionics" to deal with.

She is what she is and being irritated with her is not going to make her start calling on Mother's Day, etc. She might be frustrated at her immaturity, while not perceiving it as such: to her it may read as a lack of agency. How unfair that she's the last to hear the news about Mother and all these things are just done with no input from her! etc. I'm not saying that makes sense, just suggesting that that might be the space she's in.

"How do I convey that any anger and listing of past wrongs will simply add too much stress to Father and Deedee and ultimately Mother?"

Raylene is a person with problems of her own, and presumably does not need the stress of her own past wrongs recited to her; try to keep that in mind. You are very unsympathetic towards her in spite of the awareness of "possible psychiatric issues." At any rate, it sounds like you don't have to worry about much of a response here; you "tired of being rebuffed each time I attempted contact and stopped trying years ago."
posted by kmennie at 3:07 PM on May 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah, totally skip any phone calls: email, snail-mail or a facebook message is the way to go. Written communication will permit you to tell Raylene what you need to tell her, but blocks her escalating it into DRAMAZ!! Send her one and only one written message, then whatever she does is up to her.
posted by easily confused at 3:10 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


If she has adult children, please inform them independently so they have the opportunity to reach out to their grandmother in their last days, and make sure they know you care about them even though you are estranged from their mother.
posted by bq at 3:23 PM on May 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


Nthing you should just send an unemotional informative email or Facebook message.
posted by Andrhia at 3:27 PM on May 17, 2013


Regardless of how you see her, it appears she's identified your family as toxic and has made moves to separate herself.

I agree with those upthread who said you might not have any idea of her childhood or experiences with your parents or siblings. My own mother in law separates herself from her two brothers and parents for several great reasons even though on the surface all of them are a great family.

Having people she's cut off ties contacting her about her mother is very much "about her" and it is a big choice that she has to make whether to become involved or not.

Send her a brief email and let her decide what to do. If you don't hear back from her, don't press her. She's an adult and has made her choices.
posted by haplesschild at 3:33 PM on May 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am sorry about your mom and sorry this has been so difficult for you. I see no reason to turn this into a phone call. There is no reason this can not and should not be a unidirectional "Here is some information for you" message, email or even a handwritten letter. I totally can hear your pain coming through this question and I think your strong feelings are obscuring that this interaction does not have to be part of the long terrible back and forth that your family has been through with Raylene. This is a notification, to be decent, and that is all.

I agree that I would try to send it to other members of Raylene's family especially adult or older teen children.

How do I maneuver her tendency to turn each situation into a personal affront? How do I make it clear to her that she needs to pull up her big girl panties and realize that this is not about her? How do I convey that any anger and listing of past wrongs will simply add too much stress to Father and Deedee and ultimately Mother?

You can't. This stops with you. And you're not even responsible for your father and mother's feelings about this. The best thing you can do for your family is take on this task, wring the drama out of it until it is just a list of facts, send those facts to your sister, block her on Facebook and get on with the difficult road ahead of you. No need to make it worse for you or anyone else. Again, I am sorry you are having to deal with this.
posted by jessamyn at 3:37 PM on May 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


I won't repeat what others have said so well above, but please I urge you to let Raylene know that mom might not have much time left. "Her condition has taken a turn for the worse" is very vague and could be interpreted optimistically. Please be direct and honest and let her know if mom only has a few days or weeks left to live. For all of her drama, she deserves this at least, so she can make her own decisions in complete knowledge of the situation.
posted by matildaben at 3:44 PM on May 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


If it must be you who contacts her, then Facebook as others have eloquently said. And otherwise leave her alone unless you can interact with her with compassion. You really don't know what she's been through, and her perspective is as valid as yours. You forgive the bad behavior of others in your family as "but they meant well" and being "of a certain generation" or whatever. Everyone has reasons for believing what they believe and behaving the way they do. Be forgiving.
posted by headnsouth at 4:25 PM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of the most interesting pieces of insight I ever heard about families was from a licensed marriage and family therapist. He said "If you want to know what's really going on with a family, look at the black sheep...the one nobody likes and who fucks everything up and is fucked up. They'll tell you a lot about that family. They're like the canary in the coal mine." I also read once that no two siblings ever have the same parents.

For you, the parents that always operated from a place of love and did the best they could given their own issues/foibles might, for your sister, be the parents who were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people who operated from a place of spite and malice. Who knows? The truth is usually somewhere in the middle. For you, the sister that interprets all family interactions as criticism and unacknowledged harm may well be interactions that really are loaded with implied criticism and insensitivity. Who knows? The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

So. For this update, keep it short and in writing, lots of good suggestions above. Stick to the facts, just the facts. Try to avoid using WE since it implies an absent YOU (and all the rebuke that comes with it). Don't speak for your mom or the rest of your family - no need to pick up the torch for anyone. Let her make her decision from there and understand that you can't buffer your mom, dad, brothers and sisters from the fallout of her decision. Best of Luck.
posted by space_cookie at 4:42 PM on May 17, 2013 [23 favorites]


My goals are to calmly let Raylene know the reality of Mother's health and where she is living.
Then do just that. Whether you tell her by email or phone call - and I'd go with a phone call as it is the most direct, simple, and convey the most information (addresses/phone numbers/details) - you don't have to let the conversation go anywhere beyond that. I would strongly suggest, as others have, that you don't. It's not your job to tell her what to do or how to feel or to try to control how other will feel about it. It's not the purpose of this update, either. All you are is the messenger.
posted by sm1tten at 5:03 PM on May 17, 2013


Good advice above...I would only add that you might establish a neutral way of communicating information, maybe a Facebook message or page with at least one adult family member from each sibling branch of the family on it (and anybody else that wants the info) and a designated person to post updates. When my father was in his last days we found that everyone in the family expected personal phone calls/updates everyday and to be honest, it was just emotionally draining. Using Facebook this way really helped and put the responsibility back on those people to check it if they wanted an update, which we tried to provide at least daily.
posted by tamitang at 5:19 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Email, or write a letter. I'd actually go with the old fashioned pen and paper letter method as it is more effort for her to sit down and write a reply where as email makes it easy for her to spout off her rantings and hit send. If you are happier not hearing too much from her, you don't want to get her thinking she can contact me through Facebook/Email/IM if you can avoid it. Send it registared so she can't play the whole I didn't get the letter sob story card if she's the sort to do that.

I say this as someone who has a brother that sounds very much like your sister. I know how stressful getting in contact with someone like this is, and you have much more important things to worry about right now.
posted by wwax at 6:06 PM on May 17, 2013


I want to apologize because my initial comment was terse. You're family is going through a very difficult time, and I am sorry.

IANAD of any kind, but I've never seen anyone in my personal life I might describe as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder that was not profoundly abused or traumatized in some way.

You are going through something profoundly traumatizing yourself right now.

Please take the energy you have been using streessing out about your sister and channel it back into kindness towards yourself and your family. Keep it positive, keep your mind off of anger for the time being. It's a tempting an easy way to let off steam, but it isn't helpful to you. It just makes you feel shitty, and you don't need that right now.

---

Keep reading this next part if you are up to it. I have some insights that may or may not be helpful.

---

Guilt about not contacting Raylene? You don't need it!

If she has decided her family is toxic, then she knows the consequences of cutting you all off.

She might not want any part in your mother's situation because she might want to avoid Family Drama, too. Maybe staying away is her way of dealing with things.

While I appreciate the folks who advise you contact her children.... That really depends. They are her children, her family. I don't know the nature of the (past) dysfunction in your family, but your sister might feel VERY strongly about protecting her children from abuse. CONTACTING HER CHILDREN BEHIND HER BACK WILL COME OFF TO HER AS VERY MANIPULATIVE AND WILL INFLAME BAD FEELINGS ALL AROUND.

You describe her as being prone to histrionics. Please, please, don't go there. The dramaz contacting her children will create is not worth the energy it will take away from your mother and family.

Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 8:36 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would phone and use one of the scripts mentioned above. Then again, I'm used to having difficult conversations. But this conversation should be 3 minutes, tops. Then it's over forever. Words on paper or a screen linger, can be read into, stewed over, reflected on, and responded to. Haven't you ever argued with a family member over email? Miserable.

"Hi Raylene, I know we haven't talked in a while and you're going through some stuff, but listen. Mom's not doing well and moved into an assisted living facility. Here's the number. Everyone's pretty stressed out and we wanted you to know what's going on so you can be a part of this if you feel you are able."

When she responds about the equally bad thing that's happening to her right now: "I'm really sorry to hear that. You know I gotta go drop off the kids/get to work/visit mom/put out the kitchen grease fire right now, but next time you're back here, lets have coffee. I want to hear all about it." Then think up an excuse later.

When she responds about how terrible her upbringing his and how everyone abandoned her: "You know, I really can't talk about this right now. Just thought you might want to know about mom. Bye now."

But don't invite a long winded inflammatory written response. Short and to the point then hang up and pour a drink and forget about it. You did your job. Ignore Facebook posts and emails and roll your eyes if confronted with it.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:55 PM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I shared this thread with Deedee. The answers provided much to think about.
The primary take away was that our fear of Raylene turning the contact into a confrontation was keeping us from seeing the bigger picture of keeping the conversation very simple and to the point. Your almost unanimous consensus brought that home to us loud and clear!

After Deedee read through the thread she decided that she had a handle on how to proceed. She decided to contact Raylene and texted her about a desire to "update" her regarding Mother. Raylene texted when she was available to speak and Deedee phoned at that point. The call went well. Deedee did not respond when Raylene tried going into wounded territory and Raylene eventually stopped. Raylene asked for Mother's address and said she might send a card.

Deedee did inquire about the Facebook hints of issues and learned Raylene's high school aged daughter has had some issues, was institutionalized for a bit and now has meds and counseling which seems to be helping. Raylene. understandably has been worried and concerned.

As a side note, Raylene has never been the black sheep. I held that dubious position for a good 40 years. Through my eventual realization that I had a choice about letting my childhood issues keep holding me back I spent many years doing the work to get to a point of acceptance. Which allowed me to release the anger and develop good family relationships. Is it perfect? No, but now I can operate from a point of calm understanding rather than resentment and anger. No matter how much work we do there is always some element of the hurt child in us - the trick is learning to accept it and find healthy ways to work around it.

I do not resent Raylene. I simply realized that until she is able to do the personal work needed she will continue to react to family issues in unhealthy, unproductive ways. We both had similar responses to our upbringing so I am very sympathetic. She was always sensitive to the extent that everyone tried to take extra care in how they phrased things so she wouldn't spiral into a meltdown. But she was very much an active member of the family. Unfortunately her perception of some more recent events has caused her to react with increasing rage and led to her doing some very intentional hurtful things - hence Deedee finally stopping maintaining contact.

Tamitang's post reminded me of how helpful Carepages had been when we had a sibling with serious medical issues. I've suggested that we use that to keep folks updated with Mother.

So our thanks for your suggestions. Being in the midst of this makes it hard to see the forest for the trees! Your comments helped us refocus and proceed in a good way and you have our deep appreciation.
posted by cat_link at 10:09 AM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


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