Urgent family illness and academic deadline
October 16, 2013 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I have a complicated relationship with my family. An elderly relative is dying in the next few weeks. I have an extremely important deadline coming up. I need help in coping.

Those who have read my posts know that my relationship with most of my family is strained at best. An elderly relative with whom I have always had a particularly good relationship (although it had its issues as well) is dying. She has been given a couple of weeks to live.

I am in an extremely stressful period of life: an urgent academic deadline (the final deadline for a project I have not done well with) in a couple of weeks, a lot of work related to other projects, three (!) conferences I am supposed to present at (some that I have waited a long time for). I was at the end of my endurance before I heard the news.

I am very concerned that this visit with family will derail my progress and make it hard for me to focus over these critical few weeks on this critical deadline. I CANNOT DELAY THIS DEADLINE FOR ANY REASON. I've already delayed it, my academic advisor is concerned about me, and I stand to have serious consequences if anything goes wrong.

I am planning to visit her in a couple of days. I'm finding it upsetting to even think about this. I'm having trouble sleeping. I'm overeating. I'm completely drained.

Seeing family reminds me of what my life was like before I turned it around, how little they helped me when I needed it most, how smug and unhelpful most of them were, and chances are also good that my parents will be there. I haven't seen them in years and we are completely estranged. I'm pretty angry at everyone still, but I know they think I have no reason to be. It reminds me of how much I wanted a close, loving family, and how that never happened. I know I never met their expectations in life and I always wanted to. It makes me feel dark and bitter inside, hopeless and scared.

My questions are:

- What have you done to cope and make sure that your mind doesn't run off the track in situations like this?

- Should I go? I think it's respectful to go. She's still lucid most of the time. But I also think it will mess me up and I really can't afford to miss this deadline. This could be a great opportunity to sift through my past and come to peace and such, but I just don't have the time right now.

- My boyfriend will be going with me. I'd like him to meet her before she dies. But why do I care? Her approval isn't going to matter anyway. I keep going around and around with this.

- What should I talk to my therapist about this? How can she best help me?

- I imagine I'll go again at the funeral. Should I just wait for that?
posted by 3491again to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I'm so sorry for the fact that you are having to deal with everything all at once. I would suggest limiting your exposure to the other family members as much as possible. Make a short trip to visit your dying relative and focus on her. Is she at a hospital? Is there any way you could visit her when other family members aren't around? Say, the early morning?
posted by FiveSecondRule at 7:29 PM on October 16, 2013

What is the geography here? Can you go there and leave the same day? I'd go, see the relative, introduce your boyfriend, then turn around and leave. Skip the funeral, deal with the stuff you have to deal with, then go back on your own (with or without boyfriend) to say some prayers, visit her gravesite, whatever is important to you or your culture.

Seeing the dying person is something that you can do, that can never be done at another time. Saying your goodbyes metaphorically, as at a funeral, can be done any time.

Good luck.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:34 PM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Practical advice.

You have, say, 50 units of energy per day. Recently, those 50 units have not been enough to meet your academic deadlines.

You now have an emergency which is going to take 20 more units of energy per day. So you're kind of in trouble unless you materially change some things.

1) Cut out random crap that drains your energy. E.g., a no-internet rule for a couple of weeks. No TV. No [whatever habit you have that takes up your time]. This might not be a "bad habit" prima facie, but it can be something that takes up your time... for instance writing in a journal or taking baths. Look at your schedule - where are those 20 replacement energy units going to come from?

2) Make some serious decision to bullshit your upcoming assignment using the 80-20 rule. Do an 80% good job with 20% of the effort. Make an effort to produce inferior work than you normally would, and just get something on paper. Now is not the time to be a perfectionist.

3) If your anxiety gives you trouble sleeping, get a prescription for Ambien (IANYD) and take it as needed during these few weeks to make sure you get 8 hours per night.

To answer some of your questions... yes, go, but save any "sifting" until after your deadline. Don't dwell on old mementos. You can go back to those. Take some photos/videos of your time with her and give yourself the chance to dwell later, when you have time.

Don't worry about your boyfriend. Whether he goes or not is halfway irrelevant. This is a relative you've known your whole life. Your bf is some dude who has been around a year or two. If you go, focus on your relationship with your relative.

I would suggest going to the funeral and to see the relative beforehand, also. It sucks to have the regret that academic obligations took away from your meaningful life experiences. My grandfather died not long ago, and I was grateful to spend time with him while he was still alive, before he passed.

What can your therapist do? Give you a prescription for Ambien to take on an as-needed basis during the next few weeks. (IANYD).
posted by htid at 7:38 PM on October 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am sorry to hear of your impending loss.

I'm an academic, and rare is the deadline that is absolute. What, exactly, are the consequences you face for missing this one? Are they life-altering (suspension or expulsion, loss of funding, etc.), or merely embarrassing? Will they leave others in the lurch (e.g., experimental results required for someone else's presentation or publication)? Is there an ombudsperson at your university to whom you could turn for advice?

I can understand an advisor being concerned about and upset with a student who continually pushed off a deadline, but it strikes me that, unless his or her own work, or that of other students, will be disrupted, he or she ought to be understanding of a need to visit a dying relative. And it's not uncommon for presenters to cancel conference appearances due to family emergencies.

As for the visit: I'd do it, but keep it short. The point of the visit is to bring her momentary pleasure and to give you peace of mind. You don't need to linger for that, and if she is that close to death, it's likely she's not up for long visits anyway.

No specific advice on what to ask from your therapist, but it sounds like you're overcommitted even without this, and talking about how to avoid overcommitment in the future might be good.

Finally, how to cope: I would focus on your projects. Prioritize them, then for each, follow the Getting Things Done model of asking yourself, "What is the next single concrete action that I need to do to move the project forward adequately?" Do that, then figure out the next concrete action. It may not work for you, but when I'm faced with anxiety about not being able to handle everything on my list of professional and personal commitments, getting something concrete done makes me feel a lot better than ruminating about not getting enough done.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:50 PM on October 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

See your relative now.

Skip the funeral.
posted by jbenben at 8:10 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take your boyfriend, see your relative. (Tell your boyfriend to bring a good novel so he can sit in the waiting room for a few hours while you also have alone time with your relative.)

Skip the funeral. Funerals are for the living. Your business is with your aunt. Send a flower arrangement if it's important in your family to make a show of grief at the official funeral.

Personal story, similar situation: I was in my senior year of college, recovering from a bout of mono and desperate about deadlines when my grandfather died. I'm very close to and have a great relationship with my family, and none of them wanted me to take time away from my schoolwork to have a bedside visit (he was not lucid), and everyone urged me to skip the funeral and focus on school instead of flying across the country when I was still exhausted and recovering and had finals rapidly approaching. Everyone reminded me, "Your grandfather would have wanted you to focus on school." It's true. The people who love you want what's best for you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:43 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can manage the energy to do this, go and visit your relative while she is alive. Years down the road, you will thank yourself.

Skip the funeral. She won't know or care. Funerals bring out the worst in people. Save yourself the emotional damage and the drama.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:56 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was in this exact position five years ago (not academic pressure, but work-related) while the only relative who was ever a positive role model in my life was in hospice care.

I spent as much time as possible with him before he passed, visiting every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. Even though my estranged family was present for much of it, the only thing -- the ONLY thing I remember is how happy he was to have me there with him as a quiet and comforting presence in the room. We mostly watched ball games, talked about gardening, and just sat together peacefully. It was amazing. I ignored the family drama, which had suffocated me for years, because it was simply irrelevant. In fact, the simple act of being able to ignore their nonsense during those few weeks made it feel much more possible to actively start healing from the damage they had inflicted in decades past... once I had time and energy to gather my thoughts, a couple of months later. It wound up being a huge turning point in my life.

My relative passed away peacefully around 45 minutes after I had left to swing home for a quick shower and lunch break. There was no funeral or even a memorial service because my family is nuts and did not feel other people had the "right" to grieve him. But no matter what happened before or after, I have been overwhelmingly glad that I was able to be there. I would not trade it for anything. The memories of our time together sustain me in my darkest hours. I think about him every single day.

Absolutely go visit your relative! She wants you to be there, you want to be there, and that's all the information you need. Tell her how much she means to you and what a difference she has made in your life. Definitely skip the funeral, and -- this is vital -- very specifically tell your boyfriend and all of your friends that you need super-double-plus extra material and emotional support over the coming weeks. Ask them to cook you healthy meals, come and get you out of the house, brainstorm on ideas for your papers and presentations. They will lift you up in whatever way they can, I promise. If it is important for your boyfriend to meet your relative, bring him into her room once or maybe twice, but otherwise, have him wait in the hallway or waiting area while you hang out with her -- this is what I did and it worked beautifully, plus I imagine it's a little jarring to have a virtual stranger standing over you while you are dying.

Your therapist can help you put together some solid immediate-term coping skills to keep it together in your high-voltage academic situations. Make lists of what you have to do daily/weekly and show them to the people who love you; they will help you tick the boxes. Lean on them hard, call in all your chits, you will get it done. In between bouts of academia, allow ample time to cry and breathe. Treat yourself to some fancy bath products, a relaxing night out, or a quiet night at home when the pressure starts to overwhelm you. Give yourself permission to feel peace any time you stumble across it. Please MeMail me if you need encouragement or support.

Hang in there! You can do this.
posted by divined by radio at 5:25 AM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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