Family suicide complicated by lack of communication: is it ADHD?
July 3, 2014 6:46 PM   Subscribe

My husband’s cousin recently killed himself. The sadness we feel is colored by intense anger at my husband’s mother, who never communicated what was going on with the cousin - or that he had moved to a city we visit frequently. Could "forgetting" to mention or misrepresenting major family information/news be a byproduct of ADHD? Yes, there's more inside...

My husband and I live far away from our families and home states, a choice we made for financial and career reasons. MIL has never fully, in her heart, accepted this.

His younger cousin recently committed suicide. They had been very close in childhood, but had not seen each other in several years. It’s just … there are no words for how awful something like this is. It was devastating to learn that the cousin lived relatively nearby for the past four years, without my husband realizing it. The deceased had suffered many slings and arrows in recent years – financial and legal difficulty that drove him to a state of utter despair. We could have told him he wasn't alone, given him money, helped him out – things we have routinely done for our friends near and far who we have known for fewer years- but we didn’t do any of this because we didn’t know he was in trouble, let alone nearby. I cannot tell you how angry, and helpless we feel about this.

MIL knew some of what was going on in his life but never said anything, and despite the fact we’d been in the same town as the cousin several times in the last couple of years, she never mentioned it. We don't think the deceased was aware we were nearby, either.

MIL has a track record of not telling us crucial things, or telling us news at the last minute in an insensitive, mindbending way. Bottom line, we find out someone is in trouble long after the fact, when we could have provided support - and instead we look like heels who don't give a shit. I always thought it was a consequence of her not accepting that he married a non-local, that we were "out of state, out of mind" - but this is different.

Recently, she called and told my husband that his uncle had died – and almost as an afterthought, that the death happened a week ago, that he’d been fighting cancer for months, and had moved back to his hometown (from overseas) to battle it. My husband never got to say goodbye; he would have flown up to see him, if he’d known. No one, including his sister, said a thing to him about his uncle until the man was dead. Nothing.

We hosted a big party with out of state guests; my FIL (divorced from MIL) asks me if I’m inviting two of my husband’s relatives who live in our state. My jaw drops. No, we didn’t even know they lived nearby! For years we'd struggled with our homesickness, only to find out at this late date that we had relatives within driving distance.

My husband doesn’t feel like it’s worth even arguing with his mother about this because he thinks she’ll just blow it off, forget all about it, keep repeating the pattern.

He feels pretty isolated and misunderstood by his family, and this sense of isolation and people not communicating with one another has really compounded the grief he feels about his cousin. I mean, yes, we are so upset that he would do this, when he had so much to live for - but we just feel... gobsmacked that he was suffering so close by us.

Her insensitivity has complicated our feelings about the infertility we've been experiencing, too, a different kind of loss. And we're very transparent about it with almost everyone, not in a "poor me", but matter of factly. It's been complicated by MIL's thought processes, which, despite our being upfront about our attempts to replicate, have moved from "When am I going to be a grandmother" to "I'm not even going to visit you two until I become a grandmother," to “She's infertile? I thought she didn’t want to have any children!”

My husband has not been diagnosed formally with ADHD, but we think he, MIL, and SIL all have it. MIL and SIL seem to be more the hyperactive or mixed kind – my husband more the inattentive. MIL has been married four times; SIL’s father has ADHD and is divorced from his fifth marriage. MIL is incredibly impatient, and a horrible listener. She has a kind heart and despite all this, we both care about her a lot.

I try to maintain ties with the people I care about. Cards, emails, phone calls, visits and long drives. I encourage my husband to do the same, and our relationship with the other side of his family has deepened in the last decade. On the other hand, MIL seems to mischaracterize our lives to our other relatives, but because she’s his mother, people mistakenly think she’s the “source” to get news about him. When my husband sees family members from her side, he usually has to correct them about what’s "really going on”.

She is not a pearl-clutcher who would hide dirty laundry for the sake of the family - she's impatient and opinionated, the type of person who loudly announces to a stranger that they're an asshole for taking her parking space.

Is lack of communication about family crises/insensitivity something that happens with ADHD sometimes? What can we do, with her, or with his family? Does ADHD cause people to isolate or compartmentalize themselves or their relationships? Is it worth him trying to confront her about this, is there something he should say or do?
posted by mitschlag to Human Relations (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry for your loss, and I'm sorry you're going through a difficult time. It's natural to want to find someone to blame when a terrible event like this comes to pass.

However, I think ADHD is a red herring here. It's really not your mother-in-law's job to keep you abreast of what's going on in the lives of relatives that you apparently aren't up to managing a relationship with directly. I would recommend your husband open up more direct lines of communication with his family instead of relying on an intermediary.
posted by Andrhia at 6:55 PM on July 3, 2014 [52 favorites]

It sounds like you and your husband need to start reaching out personally to his extended family instead of waiting for his mother to manage those relationships on your behalf. Call or write regularly, try to visit when you can, things like that. This will also help solve the problem about them knowing nothing about his life, since he will be telling them himself.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:56 PM on July 3, 2014 [44 favorites]

I've just returned from a wonderful family reunion with my mother's side of the family. Some cousins spent nearly a year planning the event (we do this every four years or so) and it involved hundreds of miles of travel for most of us. We had an absolute blast.

My mom chose not to attend the reunion because she didn't want to reschedule a dentist appointment. And she's still mad her older sibling took that bureau she wanted from her mother's basement. 30 years ago.

This story is only to say.... people be crazy. Whether it's due to ADHD, some kind of narcissism, or just general assholery, you can't fix it. Confronting her won't help. All you can do is cultivate and nurture your relationships in the family around her crazy. Get to know them directly. That's what I've done with my mother's side of the family and it has been well worth it. If she's as bad as you say (and it sounds bad) other people are aware of it and will be glad of the chance to know you without her mediation.

I'm so sorry for the loss of your cousin and your struggles with infertility. Hang in there.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:59 PM on July 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm very sorry for your losses.

Unfortunately, this question is kind of weirdly bifurcated, because there's basically two really sensitive topics that are kind of mashed together here--1. "My husband and I are hurt by my MIL's carelessness in communicating with us about our family," and 2. "Does my MIL have ADHD?" I would gently suggest that the first one is the only one that is really relevant here. Unless your MIL is having trouble maintaining a safe and stable personal life, or she expresses concern to you that she might have this problem, it's really none of your business if she has a particular medical diagnosis, and making it your business is only going to lead to trouble.

Have you tried to talk to her about this, or have you ignored it because of how your husband thinks she'll react? If you've already tried to talk to her about it, let it go and work on maintaining more direct ties with your family through other means. If not, wait a while for the turmoil of your husband's cousin's death to pass, and then broach it with her (I would use the house-party-relatives incident instead.)

Stray thoughts:
--It's possible that there was something bigger going on with the cousin that you don't know, maybe will never know. It's possible she didn't know at all what was going on with him, or suspected that he was in worse shape (abusing drugs, unstable living conditions, something else), and didn't want to upset her son. I'm not saying that was the right choice to make, but she may have made it for reasons other than thoughtlessness.
--Even if you had gotten in touch with the cousin, there's no guarantee that things would've gone differently. Please don't blame yourselves, or her, for this tragedy.
--I kind of feel like you two are also falling into the trap of using her as the gossip hub of the family, even though you know that she's not always reliable (in multiple sense of the word.) It might be that she's not well-suited for or interested in that role, but has been cast into it as an older lady in the family.
posted by kagredon at 7:04 PM on July 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Most of my familiarity with clinically-defined ADHD is from taking a single college class that was an overview of learning disorders for people studying K-12 teaching, but yeah, that behavior sounds much more like someone who is simply self-centered and manipulative (which still could be related to a psychological condition, I suppose) rather than anything fitting the description or diagnostic criteria for ADHD that we covered.
posted by XMLicious at 7:08 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss.

However, this was a cousin your husband "hadn't seen in years", as well as an uncle he also had not been in touch with --- but the total lack of any direct contact between your husband and that cousin or uncle at least APPEARS to indicate lack of interest in them: a truly interested adult would maintain his/her own relationships, not depend on his/her mother to do so for him/her. It's reasonable for a parent to maintain the family connections for a child, but this is one of the things grownups do for themselves.

I'm sorry, but your husband's decision not to be in personal contact with his own relatives probably made his mother assume he wasn't interested in his extended family, so why should she waste her time telling him about them?
posted by easily confused at 7:09 PM on July 3, 2014 [18 favorites]

I'm sorry for the sadness.

It's every adult's job to forge and maintain relationships for themselves. I don't think your MIL is to blame here: there was a whole family of people, including the cousin himself, who didn't tell you that cousin was nearby; or that uncle was home and terminally ill; or that other relatives were near. Likewise, your husband has dropped the ball on them - they don't know if/that he's interested in them when they don't hear from him at all (and they're not there to hear it when he does ask MIL about them).

This isn't MIL's job, and it's not her fault. She has been insensitive, yes, but you cannot expect or blame her for your (his) other relationships.
posted by Dashy at 7:18 PM on July 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

we could have provided support - and instead we look like heels who don't give a shit

Though your grief at your husband's cousin's loss comes through clearly, some of your frustration with MIL comes across oddly as MIL not passing on family information or twisting family information in such a way that you may be interpreted as unkind/uncharitable. This would definitely be one of my last concerns right now, or in general.

I'd suggest that you stop treating her like a credible source of information - don't rely on her to pass it to you, don't rely on her to pass your info to others. Connect with all of the members of your extended family through social media, phone calls, letters, etc. Send out annual Christmas letters with updates. Ask others (like your divorced FIL) for information on creating ties with and making contact with family members.

Ultimately- she is not responsible for getting you information, though it would certainly be nice if she did. I would strongly suggest moving on and making your own relationships.
posted by arnicae at 7:22 PM on July 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm grieving now for a lost loved one, too. It's hard to think you have time and then be reminded so coldly that you don't. It's righteously unfair, it sucks and I'm sorry.

It's natural to feel like being pissed off at somebody. But it's just a phase. Your mother-in-law isn't responsible for making sure everybody relates to everybody else. You have the choice to involve yourself in your family's lives or not.

It's also not your fault that your cousin committed suicide. It's also none of your business what anybody else thinks about you. The only thing that matters now is taking from this terrible thing whatever it is you need to know to go forward and make yours and the lives of those you love less shitty and more joyous.

Good luck. I'm really sorry you're grieving your lost love. It's so hard but you will get through it. You'll know more and you'll do better now and later on because of it.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:33 PM on July 3, 2014

my FIL (divorced from MIL) asks me if I’m inviting two of my husband’s relatives who live in our state. My jaw drops. No, we didn’t even know they lived nearby!

So, FIL also didn't tell you about these relatives? Yet you are blaming MIL for everything?

Honestly, this sounds like your long-simmering resentments toward your MIL are coloring your judgment. Your husband hadn't maintained contact with the cousin, nor had the cousin reached out to your husband for years. They are/were adults, and opted out of remaining in contact or renewing contact (and it is not hard to find people these days via search engines). That's not on MIL; that's on these two men. And it is their right as adults to not have been in contact, if that's what they wanted.

I understand that you are grieving the loss of a relative, but so is MIL, and other family members. It sounds like your anger is misdirected. Irrational anger is part of grieving a suicide, so I don't fault you for your strong feelings; but it's unfair to MIL to blame her for your sorrow at not being able to prevent the death.

I wish you comfort as you move through your grieving process.
posted by nacho fries at 7:42 PM on July 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

There's a lot going on here. Whoa.

My condolences. I understand, and I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's cousin.


- Regarding Extended Family: I believe this is what Facebook and similar are for. Cut his mother out of the communication chain. You have the opportunity right now, maybe start a Family Page everyone can subscribe to? Just reach out and do it.

- Regarding ADHD: Nope. Sounds like manipulation, edging towards a personality disorder.

- Regarding your husband's parents and their multiple marriages: See Point, above.

Look. These people sound dysfunctional. It's possible you and your husband have both been too close to it for too long, but this is the sensible read. Sorry.

I mean, get in touch with your distant families or not, but do get some grief counseling ASAP. While you're at it, get some recommendations for websites and books you can peruse about dysfunctional family dynamics.

Well informed, you can figure out how to wisely interact with and healthily relate to family, either distant or near.

Nthing that you are likely conflating bad behavior with grief over your husband's cousins suicide. Also affirming there is poor behavior a foot, but these things may not be related.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

None of the things the OP has said would lead me to believe that the MIL ended up with the information about family members, and the husband didn't, because the MIL is a responsible communicator who responsibly maintains relationships and the husband isn't. Husband sure as hell isn't to blame for any distorted or inventive information MIL is spreading in the course of making her gossip juicier and more interesting, which husband has to correct on the occasions he does get to talk to these relatives.

"MIL has been married four times", fer chrissake! Each of my parents was only married once and I still have a hard enough time keeping track of the relatives more than one step away from me.

And it may not have anything to do with ADHD but a member of your immediate family can definitely be responsible for fucking with relationships with more distant family members - I've known people to revel in being the connection between two branches of a family and to love playing little games to see what happens when they tell different people different versions of the same story, or see how they can get others to react depending on the sort of embellishments they make up.

Yeah, maybe this is just an emotional reaction to a tragic event on the OP and husband's part, but it's hardly impossible that MIL is pulling some shit.
posted by XMLicious at 8:02 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I second that it seems to be time to stop expecting her to share information (rather than expecting it and being upset when it doesn't happen.)

Also, please don't beat up yourself (or your MIL) with "what if"s and "we could've"s. This is SO common with deaths, and even moreso with suicides, but it's almost certain to be wrong. I'm sure you guys would have helped, but it may well not have been enough. I'm sure many people tried to help. If there was an easy solution to how he felt, he probably would have found it. You probably only know the tip of the iceberg -- the tip that is easy to explain. Suicide is inscrutable, especially to people in good mental health. I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by salvia at 8:05 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am so sorry for your loss and understand your pain and anger and "if only." Please don't turn this pain into blaming the MIL. It won't bring his cousin back and it won't heal your pain. Just focus on working through your grief. I'm sorry.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:36 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Clearly you're feeling deeply frustrated, as well as sad, and you're directing that frustration at your MIL, but I'm not seeing how it's warranted. Your MIL has a pattern of not sharing (or not sharing in a timely way) important family information, yet your husband hasn't developed a different strategy for maintaining family connections.

I am sorry for your loss, and I don't mean any of the above in a scolding way. I just mean, rather than blaming your MIL, it might be better in the long run to look for ways to both accept her for who she is and protect yourselves from the consequences of depending on her for information.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:07 PM on July 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry for the loss - and the stress - but you (and your husband) cannot change what has already happened, nor can you force her to behave in the manner you would prefer.

What you CAN move forward doing is re-connecting with family and then staying in contact yourselves. Yes, it might be work, and you might have to resort to doing so mindfully, methodically and deliberately - but it would prevent or reduce future occurances.
posted by stormyteal at 10:19 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing using social media instead of unreliable family members to get info.

The funeral for the woman who was far more of a mother to me than my biological one was yesterday. Had I not been FB friends with her daughters I would not have been able to be there. When her 2nd husband died 10 years ago it took my father two months to tell me...and he didn't let me know directly when another friend of the family who was my de facto aunt had died. I had to find out from a cousin and by then it was too late for me to travel to her funeral.

I am sorry for your loss.
posted by brujita at 12:31 AM on July 4, 2014

I am so sorry for your loss.

I live far from family/"home" and people fail to mention important family developments to me all the time. No pathology necessary, just general shitty behavior. Like you, I suspect that part of it is a general sense of disapproval of my choice to move so far away. But most likely it's not for any conscious reason at all. They just don't think.

One thing I've noticed in my family -- and I have no idea if this is typical or not -- is that often people of the "parents" generation don't realize that those of us in the "kids" generation who are in our 20s and 30s are perfectly capable of helping out in tough situations. I find that not only do they fail to mention important family news to me, but that I'll be talking to someone of said generation about some family drama or other and realize that they're not leaning on any of us kids for help, ever. Despite the fact that the youngest cousin in my family is college aged, and most of us are capable of lending a hand in a variety of adult situations.
posted by Sara C. at 1:04 AM on July 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry for your losses.

This sounds very much like my family. It is a very large family with many cousins and uncles - and most communication was filtered through my great-grandmother (when she was alive) and now it goes through my grandmother. And it doesn't work very well, but it is what family members have always done and how news spreads across all the branches of the family tree. Being the news aggregator & deciding who gets told what when gives my gran enormous pleasure - it's her source of power & entertainment. Your MIL may feel the same way (which is also why your FIL doesn't see it as his place to tell you news).

Like the OP I have experienced being told of someone's illness, death and funeral in one sentence. My grandmother explained that she wants making sure I don't get upset over things I cannot change - I read it as a way of sheltering me as though I am still a child. It is not helpful and in many cases, it is terribly hurtful.

My only advice is that you either start reaching out to family members yourself (and be aware that your MIL will feel like you are taking her power away) or that you resign yourself to your MIL machinations. If your family works in the same way as mine, those are your two options.

The ADHD is a red herring. This is all about family dynamics and power.
posted by kariebookish at 1:09 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks. Brujita and TryTheTilapia, thank you for sharing when you're going through your own grief.

To clarify a few things -

I'm still learning about ADHD and how it is impacting our marriage. I've read material indicating that ADHD can sometimes impact people's maintenance of relationships, wondered if this was one of these executive function challenges? Yes, she has other symptoms, and yes, it has impacted her personal life - which is why she is on marriage number four, and why we are worried that she will never be able to retire. And yes, it troubles us when the older generation doesn't tell us about things we would like to help them with (especially money troubles).

Both my husband and I have requested addresses so we could communicate with relatives on this side of the family directly. This has been hit or miss; she's the center of the circle, if we go outside, it's, "Well, I don't know - why don't you ask her?"

I completely agree that it was the responsibility of both grown guys to keep in touch, and if the cousin did know we were near, he may have chosen not to reconnect. He was going through - enormous, enormous issues.

He was one of the people my husband most wanted to reestablish contact with, but he also had a very common first and last name (well over 800 people in the US alone with this name) which made using the search engines useless, he wasn't on social media, we weren't even sure if he was living in the US. And when my husband asked his mother for contact information for his two favorite cousins, he just never got it.

Yes, the grief over the loss and the grief of feeling isolated... they fed on one another. He feels like it should be a door that swings both ways, that he tries to open the door, and doesn't feel reciprocity. It really only seems to be an issue with this side of the family. We do keep in touch with everyone we can - cards, email, social media, care packages at Christmas. This is something we've really worked at.

We were not out of touch with my husband's late uncle, even though he lived on the other side of the world; my husband had spoken to him within the last year, and had seen him the last time (prior to his death) that he was in the United States. His widow is connected to me on Facebook, but she does not speak English at all and hasn’t been a frequent poster. Arguably, he could have told us himself that he was sick, but I think he must have been preoccupied with fighting the disease, and also, probably assumed that the mother or sister was going to pass along the info.

Nacho Fries, you asked why I didn't blame my father in law. My husband's parents have been divorced for almost 40 years and live on the opposite end of the country from one another. They "friended" each other on Facebook maybe two years ago tops, but have no other relationship besides occasionally liking each other's posts. My father in law let me know because he had been friended shortly before the party by his ex-brother in law, who had sent him some friendly email to reconnect (after about 40 years!) and was asking about us. He was surprised that we did not know the uncle was in the same state, because he thought his ex-wife would've already told us. He was concerned about hurting the uncle's feelings, told me he was sorry no one had informed me about this, and I appreciated that he let me know before I hurt someone. How could I blame my father in law?
posted by mitschlag at 1:41 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mom has pretty intense, not well-controlled ADHD and while I think it has some effect on her social skills, it doesn't resemble your MIL's behavior. If anything she repeatedly tells me details about family members that I'm not close with, even when I've told her I'd rather not spend so much time hearing details of their lives, because she's not always good at filtering.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:34 AM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

My Mom was pretty similar. The nasty comments ignoring what was really going on, etc. I was really close to our next door neighbors and she didn't tell me when either of them died,or when cousins got married, etc. In cases of minor news, sometimes she forgot that she hadn't told 1 or 2 of the 6 of us. But it was usually a control thing. She was jealous of my relationship with the neighbors. She didn't think I should go to my cousin's wedding, etc.

I totally agree with the advice to develop your own connections to family. Email and Facebook make it a lot easier.

You can't control her. You can teach her what you will accept from her, and how her behavior affects her access to you. Great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. Stop Walking on Eggshells. And the Shamu article may also help. What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.

I know she's hurting you and your husband, and I'm so sorry for your loss. She's his Mom. For whatever reason, she can be a real bitch. But try to love her and be kind to her anyway, while rejecting her unkindness and crap. In the long run, it feels better.
posted by theora55 at 6:52 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect that your husband's entire family have been bad communicators and your are scapegoating your mother in law for all of their shortcomings in this area. She's his mother, not a salaried social secretary. You mention one terminally ill uncle, two non-specific relatives who live in the same state and one hapless cousin, none of whom thought it was worth their effort to get in touch with your husband directly to tell him what was up in their lives. Staying in touch is a two way street. If his uncle had wanted to your husband to know he was dying of cancer he would have contacted your husband and told him what was up. It's equally safe to assume that he didn't want to deal with your husband's grief and deliberately didn't tell him in order to avoid the emotions as it is to assume that he was waiting for your husband to act on information that he believed she gave him. Meanwhile your husband never casually asked his mother, "So what is Uncle up to lately?" If he didn't ask why would she assume he was interested?

If your husband's family were good communicators they would have found alternatives to having your mil in the middle. I am guessing that they are also not a good source of social support to each other. The two things go together. If I don't feel comforted after I call you, then I'm not going to call you. If the only time I ever hear about Aunt Verna is when there is dire news then I'm probably not going to know enough about Aunt Verna to be a source of comfort to her when I call to commiserate.

Could ADHD have anything to do with all this? Oh certainly. Cousin Ned sends mil a Christmas card with his new address on it. She puts the card somewhere but her attention has wandered and she doesn't make a mental note where. She certainly doesn't copy the address over into her address book. Your husband calls to ask if she can give him Cousin Ned's contact information. She makes vague noises about having that information somewhere and promptly forgets that she has sort of, partially made a commitment to try and find the Christmas card envelope. Your husband forgets to call her within two days, so that by the time he does call she has completely forgotten that he wanted Cousin Ned's address.

Bottom Line: If your husband wants to stay in touch with his family he needs to sit down and gather up all the contact information he has and then contact everyone he can and ask them for any contact information or news that they have on everyone else. "Ex-fil? Do you have any contact information on Cousin Sandra? Do you know what she is doing lately?" "Cousin Sandra? Do you have any contact information for your brothers? What!? Charles is studying fashion in Italy! Fantastic." "Hey, Charles, it's me, Cousin Mr. Mitschlag!" First you track them down and then you make sure you touch base with them on a regularly scheduled basis.

It's definitely not worth arguing with your mother in law about this. Clearly it's not working to have your mil as the go-between between your husband and the rest of his family. Your willingness to have _anyone_ as a go-between is a major part of the communication problem. Your mil is especially not suited for that position because of her personality. You'll probably find her a lot less exhasperating if you stop trying to get her to fill roles that don't suit her.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:56 AM on July 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

Is it worth him trying to confront her about this, is there something he should say or do?

One area where you and your husband would be very much within your rights to confront her is on the issue of her unkind remarks re: the baby-making issue. Any ADHD issues MIL might have do not excuse her from exercising common decency. She's being an insensitive boor, and unfortunately, it sounds like it will be up to you and your husband to teach her how to treat you. This would probably involve setting clear boundaries and rules, and attaching consequences to them.

For example, if she continues to say carelessly (or calculatedly) unkind things about the fertility issue, your husband can say something like, "Mom, you know mitschlag and I love and care for you, but we insist that you treat us with respect re: our challenges to get pregnant. Here's what we need you to do: [insert specifics here]. If you choose not to respect our wishes, here's what we are going to do [e.g. terminate the phone call; not initiate contact with MIL until she apologizes and promises to do better; etc.]. Mom, I really need you to hear this, and take it to heart. This isn't negotiable, and mitschlag and I are committed to making sure our wishes are understood and respected."

It is also 100% OK to tell her to knock it off when you catch her in a lie about you and your husband's life together. If a relative lets slip that MIL is saying things that are bullshit, confront her on it. How you and/or your husband choose to do this will be based on your shared values as a couple, but I think you should also feel free to act independently and shut her down if your husband is too wiffly-waffly to do anything about it.
posted by nacho fries at 1:50 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

We were not out of touch with my husband's late uncle... Arguably, he could have told us himself that he was sick, but I think he must have been preoccupied with fighting the disease, and also, probably assumed that the mother or sister was going to pass along the info.

It's possible that the uncle did not tell you he was sick because he did not want you to know. If other family members knew that he only wanted to tell a few people of his illness they might have chosen to keep it secret while he was alive, or other family might have only heard the news later on in the illness or after his death.

Your MIL might have had other reasons not to tell you, but the fact that uncle did not tell you himself tends to indicate it was not something he wanted to discuss with everyone. It's not at all uncommon for people to want to keep their own medical issues private, and just because you share your own medical problems with others does not obligate them to do so in return.
posted by yohko at 2:28 PM on July 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's possible that the uncle did not tell you he was sick because he did not want you to know. If other family members knew that he only wanted to tell a few people of his illness they might have chosen to keep it secret while he was alive, or other family might have only heard the news later on in the illness or after his death.

Agree with this completely. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, he asked me not to tell his cousins (who live in the same town as me). He was exhausted with the illness and the side effects of the chemo, and did not have the energy to communicate with everyone who wanted to talk to him. It was awkward for me (Dad's cousins had a good relationship with him, and with me). But my dad was entitled to have some control over the rest of his life, especially when he did not have much time left.
posted by creepygirl at 4:38 PM on July 4, 2014

Keeping in touch with relations that you dont see too often is pretty much what Facebook is best at. Maybe you could lead the charge of getting people signed up? I've been pleasantly surprised how many of my elderly relations are on FB.
posted by MadMadam at 6:41 AM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you guys really high maintanance emotionally? I'm throwing this out there because there are a couple of family members I live in the same city with who I don't reach out to when going through drama or pain because I don't want to be responsible for their panic, guilt, or grief. It's draining and unfair to me. I'm specifically bringing this up because your drive to make this the MIL's fault suggests to me that you don't do well with your own totally legit feelings, and instead make them other peoples problem.

Also you've got so much built up resentment here that I'm wondering what your MIL could've done that would've made you happy... If she urged you to reach out to a cousin you hadn't spoken to in years would you have been like ugh, there she goes, trying to suck us into family drama? If she'd told you about the uncle, would you have been like omg not everything is about gossip mom, chill out?

This isn't about your cousin's death; it's about scape goating.
posted by spunweb at 10:38 AM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really can't see how OP and husband being "high maintenance emotionally" could be at fault for MIL being evasive when directly asked for a relative's contact information. If you really think that's a reasonable response to such an inquiry for a member of your family whom you consider to be too "high maintenance" then that seems considerably more disruptive to any relationship than someone being extremely pissed off or hurt when they're treated that way.

If, on the other hand, all of these comments that are so incomprehensibly intent on faulting the OP and husband are relying upon assumptions that the OP is lying or being deceptive about some aspect of MIL's behavior or of their own response, it seems like commenters should specifically point out which details they're assuming are false instead of just passing a blanket judgment on all the described actions on the OP's part as inadequate or pathologically-motivated.

I mean maybe being evasive in that situation would make sense if you're assuming that OP and husband are so crazy that more distant relatives actually asked MIL to refrain from providing any contact information? But at that point you're assuming the existence of an entire parallel universe none of us answering this question have access to because the OP is out of touch with reality and incapable of accurately describing the situation, which is still a thing that should be mentioned as an assumption in attempting to answer this question.

To me, on the contrary, the OP sounds as though they're making an effort to rationally and impartially describe the situation despite being emotionally exercised by it and by the tragic events, as any normal person would be.
posted by XMLicious at 12:00 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Use Facebook to keep in touch with relatives, for goodness sake. Use email. MIL is not a useful communication tool. She is, however, easy to blame.
posted by crw at 6:25 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are we considered high maintenance emotionally? No. But we do continue to get asked by MILs relatives (twice this year, including once at the funeral) about a supposed slight against MIL that happened a decade ago. And my FILs sisters told me they think MIL is a shit stirrer. When I was first married my SIL was already calling my husband (? not me) with false complaints that I was not returning my MILs phone calls. I just chalked it up to a misunderstanding.

I appreciate the suggestions made, especially by Jane, about how specifically to reconfigure my and my husband's relationship with family members. I am not comfortable with go betweens, there are none between my family and me (though my dad, who I talk to frequently, sometimes tells me news about my sister before she does), or FIL family and us. I am guilty of going with the flow here, though I also try to talk directly with my husbands sister. Suggestions have been really helpful for us to discuss.

One of the resources suggested earlier (Walking on Eggshells) led me to a description of triangulation, a situation where a parent controls communication between two or more siblings or family members, one with favored status, the other a scapegoat. That this can be about power to define each party. Thank you so much for this. The suggestions about unfairly blaming her makes a lot more sense if we think about handing over power to her, as well; as someone said, its reasonable when you're a kid to let Mom and Dad speak for you, not when you're adults. I think if we were living closer, it may have evolved more that way for him to take over communications, maybe not. The triangulation theory explains a lot, like the unkind infertility comments, and other criticisms of husband.

My MIL once called my husbands sister to cancel dinner plans during a visit, angry that we were 15 minutes late in traffic (we'd called, said we were on our way). Totally bewildered by this. Sister was furious at brother that we had "cancelled on her"; he told sister, please ask me if you hear something bad from Mother; but really, you're right, brother just needs to talk to sister routinely so they can develop an independent relationship where sister wouldn't be so quick to think he'd do that, he'd understand her better too. And he should do that with everyone. I like Jane's solution a lot because it gives an idea of how to do that without saying, "Mom's giving you false info"; it gives you a chance for a fresh start.
posted by mitschlag at 7:03 PM on July 5, 2014

Oh, and I was too quick to assume late uncle wouldn't have wanted privacy at the end of his life. He was a very loud, gregarious guy, but still, could be. In my family, my aunt and father didn't like each other; when she got cancer she told her husband to keep it from my dad, because she didn't want him to feel pity for her. My dad found out only after the death and only then helped my uncle through it, my uncle was pretty torn because he needed support through it, but couldn't ask my dad. I think I automatically associate that kind of privacy with that incident, but creepygirls scenario (so sorry about your experience) is also very plausible.
posted by mitschlag at 7:14 PM on July 5, 2014

The reason I asked is because of the "looking like heels" comment in the original post. I think it's weird that someone would be concerned how their response to a beloved family member's illness and death would make them look. It's also wicked uncool to take so much ownership of someone else's depression to the point where you are blaming a third party for your inability to help/rescue someone you don't even know well enough to know they're depressed or where they live. It doesn't help the healing process to get caught up in angry what ifs, because getting caught in the anger can keep you from processing the sadness.
posted by spunweb at 8:26 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm not assuming a parallel universe where the OP and her husband are crazy? I'm responding to them thinking that talking to someone in the last year is close enough to get roped in during the kind a family emergency where your nuclear family goes into total survival mode, that it's another adult 's fault they're not closer to family, and that it's appropriate to get a mental health diagnosis for that other adult on the internet re: adhd in a question that doesn't appear to "really" be about that. None of this response is about them being crazy, it's about trying to think through the family dynamics they're describing and their role in them.

The only bit where I'm projecting is my suspicion that speculating about what flavor of crazy the mother in law is is a great way to avoid facing one's own powerlessness in the face of mortality and death. There is absolutely nothing you can have done to save the cousin, because s/he was sick. I'm really sorry for your loss.
posted by spunweb at 8:41 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, stop asking the siblings of your divorced in laws if they think their relative's ex is a shit stirrer.

Gossiping/engaging in bad talk isn't going to magically make the lines of communication better, lessen your resentment, help you claim agency in developing open lines of communication with your family, or go through the stages of grief.
posted by spunweb at 9:55 PM on July 5, 2014

I guess we just have completely different interpretations of what the OP has said. You are saying there that OP and husband have a concern which hasn't been expressed that they "own" the cousin's death, which does not at all appear to me what OP is saying; the problem as described is that husband "feels pretty isolated and misunderstood by his family", for extensive reasons that exist even apart from recent deaths even though circumstances related to those are a catalyst for this question, and they are seeking an understanding of MIL's behavior connected to these feelings.

If I were going to speculate about psychological motivations on the part of OP and husband, my take would be that they're going too far in trying to find a rationale that makes MIL's behavior the result of some sort of excusing special snowflake condition that they haven't been sensitive enough to or sufficiently considerate of, and gone too far in placing the blame on themselves instead of on her, when she's obviously being an intentionally-hurtful asshole.

(And, if she's anything like my own relatives who do the same sorts of things, they're at least partly thinking this way because she manipulates other people into it: always pushing other people into blaming themselves for any hurt feelings, even to blame themselves for the slightest frustration on her part unrelated to any action of the accused, and pushing them to exonerate her and hold her faultless no matter how she treats anyone else, and twisting arms with sharply increasing pressure and emotional manipulation to suppress "bad talk" criticising her behavior. Or maybe it's totally different from my experience, but as much as it's possible to spin everything so that all the hurt feelings are due to the failings and inadequacy and indiscretions of OP and husband, it's equally possible to read in that MIL is even more of a jerk than she's portrayed as.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:48 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I didn't ask the in laws. They asked me how she was treating me. I tried to be noncommittal. I think maybe I've mentioned my MIL once to my FIL, in regards to our fertility and the desire to be upfront with them, but I didn't repeat her comments to him. I don't gossip about her. I have told my dad and best friends about her comments, and not knowing how to react, that's it.

My concern about being viewed as a heel was in reference to expectations over other family crises, not the suicide. Even if we are big jerks, this last comment has made me think about how much responsibility we assume for family. We have been accused before of not caring or not doing something about someone in trouble, when we were not immediately aware of events due to us being out of state. Example, the husband of a suicidal family member, on my side, berated me for not being there earlier after I had flown cross county to be with her. My brother criticizes the level of involvement I have in his life (not enough; I'm selfish and don't care about him) virtually every time we talk. But no one is blaming us over our involvement or lack of in the suicide victim's life, except us.
posted by mitschlag at 2:28 AM on July 6, 2014

[mitschlag, it's not necessary or appropriate for you to respond to everything. Please just clarify if it's strictly necessary and otherwise let people answer as they will. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 8:40 AM on July 6, 2014

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