How to support a relative post-bariatric surgery during the holidays?
October 31, 2013 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I have a relative with some long-time food and weight issues who just underwent bariatric surgery. Making meals with her, cooking and eating out have always been kind of fraught. We'll be having a family Christmas holiday at her house and I'm worried that the heavy emphasis on food will be stressful. Any tips?

What I think is most likely to happen is that everyone in the family will try to go on like normal, including this relative only we'll get to hear a lot from her about how miserable she is. That's generally how most meals with her have gone anyway. I, personally, find this pretty stressful and people end up just shutting her out which is stressful and depressing.

Is there anything we can do (my husband and I) that might make the inevitable, food-focused events less stressful? More enjoyable for her and for us? I, personally, could care less about having a mountain of food but I know some people in this family would seem offended if we didn't have a gargantuan feast.

Are there foods/food types that we could include that would be "normal" but also enjoyable for her?

Any other creative ideas for enjoying the holidays without so much food?
posted by amanda to Human Relations (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is a situation in which you would do well to practice some loving detachment. Your question makes it sound like you're taking it upon yourself to solve your relative's problems and make her happy, but that's probably not something you can do (or even should be expected to do). You're probably not going to be able to stop her from complaining, and for better or worse, that might be something she does as part of her own coping strategy rather than an actual request for help.

I mean, of course you can suggest alternatives to socializing over food - personally I like board games for big family events - but unless you have actual super powers, you probably will not be able to force this event to be a stress free one. You can't cure your relative's unhappiness, you can't control other people's reactions or expectations, you're just a participant in this event and not the focus - to the extent that you can, let everyone own their own feelings and let it all flow past.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:04 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think one of the biggest issues here is that she is the host, which puts a lot more stress on her and makes it less easy to invite her to do other activities. What other non-food activities can you do with her that would still involve her and make her feel part of the family?

Could you make time to go on a walk after dinner, either before dessert or instead of it? You could go around the neighborhood or go to a park or arboretum or other nice place. (Or you could hop in the car and go look at Christmas lights.)

Could you go to the movies? My mom gets pissy about this not being family time, but I think it's actually better for family time because then you get to just relax around each other as well as have something to discuss before and after.

Could you play a party game or something? My family likes to play Balderdash/Fictionary, which is hilarious because people get to know each other's imagination and personality styles. We had a ton of fun doing it with older cousins.

Regarding the actual food, my understanding of bariatric surgery is that not only will she be restricted in the types of food she can eat, she is mostly restricted by the amount. No substitution of celery for candied yams can hide the fact that she will be eating two or three spoonfuls, period, while the rest of you eat second helpings and third courses. The comparable time it will take for her to eat vs. the rest of you will be very different.

So keep that in mind. Maybe think of other activities that take her away from the food-centric stuff. But if she's the host -- which, for all I know, she may have volunteered to do because she WANTED to show you how well she can relate to food -- please, please follow her lead and let her be in charge. She needs to feel like she is in control, which has probably been a big part of the way she feels about herself/the way she thinks other people see her.

One final note: because of both the amount and type of food involved, alcohol goes RIGHT through people with bariatric surgery. It isn't absorbed by food; it goes straight to the liver and gets you drunk very quickly. So please try to deemphasize any alcohol consumption. She almost certainly is well aware of this, but it would probably be good for others to remember that.
posted by Madamina at 10:07 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

My suggestion was going to be that you and your husband do fun, non-food-related stuff with her away from the table and away from the group that's socializing over food so that she can get away from that scene without having to be all by herself and cut off from the family.

Then I read more carefully and saw that the event is being held at her house.

Is this set in stone? Is there a possibility of changing the venue?

It seems like a situation where:

1. Some people in this family would seem offended if they didn't have a gargantuan feast
2. Making meals with host have always been kind of fraught
3. Host just underwent bariatric surgery

is a foolproof recipe for unhappiness all around.

So, I think the answer to the question, "Is there anything we can do (my husband and I) that might make the inevitable, food-focused events less stressful?" is, "Do as much as you can to persuade everybody involved that the inevitable, food-focused event should be held at somebody else's house, where she can gracefully get away from the food-focused parts when they become too stressful."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:39 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do you mean by "just underwent bariatric surgery?" The type of surgery, and the amount of time that has passed since the surgery, are big factors in what her experience (and thus yours) is likely to be.

If she had bypass surgery, she's also recovering from major abdominal surgery, and probably won't be up and about all that much. If she had laparoscopic gastric banding, then she should be back to her normal activity level. Regardless of which type of surgery, she would still be eating soft food, and have a pretty limited diet.

Past the first month, a lot depends on the individual, and how well they are adjusting to the new limitations. In the first six months, there are a lots of ups and downs, both physically and behaviorally. It takes a while to get used to the restrictions.

Past six months, if the surgery is working well and there are no complications, she should have adjusted to restrictions, and incorporated them into her life in a way that shouldn't have any effect whatsoever on the experience of others, which kind of brings me to my last point.

With or without surgery, what she eats or doesn't eat, or can and cannot do, shouldn't be the focus for anyone other than herself, and perhaps her spouse.

P.S. Both surgeries only limit the amount of food one can eat. Everyone has some foods that just don't work well for them, and she will know what those are and avoid them. There's no need to change the menu. In any case, Thanksgiving menus usually include plenty of soft, mushy, bland things that work just fine for any post-bariatric surgery diet.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:46 AM on October 31, 2013

"Do as much as you can to persuade everybody involved that the inevitable, food-focused event should be held at somebody else's house, where she can gracefully get away from the food-focused parts when they become too stressful."

On the other hand, for my mother-in-law (matriarch of a big food-is-love type family), getting to host holiday meals is a Big Deal. She can't participate in the eating, but it matters a lot to her to be able to participate in some way, and what that's ended up meaning is that she cares even more than she did before about hosting and cooking. In her case, if some well-meaning relative tried to get the meal moved to someone else's house, it would not really be an act of kindness at all — really the opposite, in fact.

So I think it really does come down to "follow her lead" and "don't try to solve her problems for her." If she's able to find a healthy way to deal with all of this and articulate what she needs from you guys, then your position is "Great! Whatever works for you, we support you!" If she's not able to do that, then you won't necessarily be able to make things any easier for her by taking the reins and telling her "Here's what we've decided you need and you're getting it whether you like it or not."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

That said, if you've gotten some indication from her that she really doesn't want to be hosting — or that she wants the event to be less food-centered — then yeah, definitely, back her up on that.

One thing I've seen work is to take a minor holiday tradition and try and sort of promote it to the main event. (Played cards after dinner before? Okay, this is now Poker Night with a meal on the side. Watched movies? Okay, this is now The Night When We Watch That One Special Movie. Some people like singing carols? Okay, this is gonna be the year when everyone Gets Really Into Caroling. Always liked decorating the tree? Great, it's now a Tree Decorating Party.) Basically, it's nice to have some continuity, and to be able to say to people "We've been doing XYZ on Christmas since you were a baby" or whatever, even if XYZ technically wasn't the main event until recently.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:51 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before the holiday - Relative, I don't know much about food requirements after bariatric surgery. What can we bring that you'll be able to enjoy?
posted by theora55 at 7:46 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to add 'puzzles!' to DingoMutt's first comment way up there.
posted by thatone at 7:53 AM on November 1, 2013

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