Help me be a supportive wife when I am a mess
August 8, 2014 12:25 PM   Subscribe

My husband's parent is sick. I am a jerk. I don't want to be a jerk. Advice?

My father-in-law (FIL) recently learned that he has stage IV lung cancer. He and my mother-in-law are evaluating treatment options, including palliative care.

My husband is understandably upset. He keeps things to himself more than I do. I don't know what to say to him or do for him so I'm just trying to be nicer. I asked him if he wants to talk. I try to say things that I think might be helpful. I also connected him with a family member who studies pulmonary medicine, thinking maybe she could be helpful.

We don't live too far from my in-laws (4-5 hours driving). My husband visited last weekend and is debating whether to visit this weekend (I offered to go with him). He was debating whether to visit last weekend and I told him that he wouldn't regret going, he might feel better just seeing his dad, etc.

Meanwhile, I'm frustrated with my current job and have been applying for new jobs for months. I have had interviews with several different groups, including finalist interviews. I just got a rejection from a position for which I had interviewed and was especially excited about. I'm trying to keep my chin up but I'm also struggling to be productive at work. I feel like I'm bad at this job and a failure for not being able to get a new one.

One of the things that has been keeping me a little sane during this has been an upcoming family vacation with my in-laws but with my FIL's health, my husband has mentioned that he's not sure that we'll go. I don't know how seriously I should take it when he says we might not go, but probably pretty seriously if he's thinking of visiting his family two weekends in a row before we were planning to spend a week with them on vacation. I feel like crying when I think about not going on vacation, then I feel like a jerk for wanting to cry about not going on vacation when my FIL is sick. I feel like the first response to this question is going to be like, "Your FIL. Has. Cancer. And you're all sad because you didn't get some stupid job and you don't get to go to Europe?!"

I'm trying to let myself be sad about things that it's understandable to be sad about (possibly not going on vacation, getting rejected from jobs I was excited about). I'm trying to be supportive towards my husband and say helpful things (and not say things, too - I'm not just talking at him) and let him do what he needs to do. And I'm trying to keep my chin up and just keep applying for more jobs. But I feel like a lousy family member and a lousy employee. And it's hard to apply for jobs when I feel like a jerk. I try to apply for jobs when I get home from work but most of the time, I just want to crawl into bed.

What should I be doing to be supportive and loving towards my husband? How do you take care of people who keep things to themselves? How can I be a better family member and employee? How do I minimize the effect that the job search is taking on my confidence?
posted by kat518 to Human Relations (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You gotta talk to your husband! You can tell him that you're not sure how to support him and that you're stressing about all the different things that are happening at once. Ask him what he needs and let him know what you need! It's totally okay that you were using the vacation a kind of lifeline. Put it in those terms for him! Your problems do not fall to nothingness just because someone has cancer. Both of you must get your needs met in order to support each other as husband and wife.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:30 PM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

You definitely get to be sad about the job and the vacation, but you also definitely need to not go on this vacation without a bit of protest if that's what your husband needs. Your top priority needs to be smoothing his way while he's going through this, and that means that while you are absolutely entitled to your feelings, it's important not to make him carry any of that frustration where it concerns your own sacrifices while he's going through this.

Mind you, once in a while your frustration might bleed through, and that is normal and also okay. But try not to let it.

Therapy is a really great way to deal with your feelings in a situation like this (hard stuff for you underneath hard stuff for your partner), so I highly recommend it.
posted by hought20 at 12:33 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need someone to kvetch and moan at who's not your husband! Do you have a good friend who'd listen if you explain?
posted by Omnomnom at 12:37 PM on August 8, 2014 [31 favorites]

I don't know what to say to him or do for him....

"Honey, I know this is a hard time for you. What specific things can I do to help?"

Ask straight out. Best case scenario, he gives you concrete examples. If he doesn't, being nice and sensitive and supportive is the best you can do. Don't beat yourself up for not being able to read his mind, though. It's his responsibility to tell you. It's not your responsibility to guess correctly.

I'm trying to let myself be sad about things that it's understandable to be sad...

Good! Continue to allow yourself to be sad. Or mad. Or frustrated. You're entitled to emotions! Just because your husband's dad is sick doesn't mean that there can only be one person in the household who gets to feel things.

How do I minimize the effect that the job search is taking on my confidence?

Don't! You don't need to minimize it. Job searching is hard. It's gotten harder since the economy tanked. It's a ruthless process, and it comes with a ton of rejection. This is true for Every. Single. Person. who looks for a job these days. It's not you -- it's the process.

Remind yourself that it's a sucky process, but it will eventually end. When you find yourself saying that you're "bad at this job," remind yourself of things you've done well at this job. (And those things exist! I promise! You just need to remember where you put your memories of them.)

And now, the biggie....

What should I be doing to be supportive and loving towards my husband?

We covered that one. Ask him. A 100% equally valid question is, what can your husband be doing to be loving and supportive of you during what is inarguably a stressful and sucky time. Because you deserve to be supported too. Again, just because his dad is sick (which is horrible and sad), he's not the only one who gets to experience feelings. You're having a rough time too. That's okay.

It sounds like it's not that he needs you more right now -- sounds like you need each other more. It's not all on you.

And if none of the above works: Therapy.

Therapy is the only reason I know to say any of this stuff.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:37 PM on August 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. I don't think you're a jerk.

Re: vacation, take the week off of work regardless. If the trip is cancelled then so be it, but take the time off. Maybe go to the beach or a cabin in the woods if you can swing it; if not, then relax at home.
posted by Asparagus at 12:37 PM on August 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

You really need to forget about yourself for a little while. You are living in your head to the point of losing perspective - you wanting a better job and wanting a trip to Europe are tiny compared to what your family is going through. Your worries about yourself are valid, but now is not the time to address them. Do you think you would be able to keep working your job and forgoing a vacation until your family settles into a routine to deal with this new situation?

Like any spouse whose partner is going through a crisis, your job is to make sure absolutely everything else in his life (that you have control over) is calm and problem-free. Until your husband gets into a more stable emotional and logistical situation with his dying family member, he does not need any added stress. Routine will come back, the crisis will pass, and all your vacation-skipping problems will be ripe for addressing.
posted by Willie0248 at 12:38 PM on August 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

My husband lost his dad last year. It was a pretty tough time for me professionally, but that's not the epic event of losing a parent. I tried really hard come home and be 100% focused on my spouse. This probably seems silly, but sometimes I visualized boxing up my problems and sticking them outside the front door. I could pick them up on the way to work in the morning, but our home was really focused on supporting my husband.

Basically, I just took care of everything I could from making sure the bills got paid to putting toilet paper in the bathrooms. My husband was really absorbed by every thing else.
posted by 26.2 at 12:42 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

One more thought... Maybe everything is happening for a reason. Maybe it would help you to look at not getting that job you wanted as an incredible blessing because had you gotten it, you'd be starting right as your husband is going through all this hard stuff with his father. It sucks to be at a job you hate, but it would be so much worse to be starting a new job when such serious stuff is going down. You have more freedom and availability now to help you husband work through this.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:42 PM on August 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

The men of little words that I know just need you to 'be' there with them. No anxiety, don't try to fix anything, don't try to make them feel better. Just be with them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:44 PM on August 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

Also: don't beat yourself up for being stressed out about Sucky Thing (your job and job search), just because there's a Way Suckier and Seriouser Thing (cancer) happening also.

The existence of Sucky Thing B doesn't make Sucky Thing A suck less. Put it into perspective sure, but sometimes there's enough room in the world for multiple levels of Suck. Job searching sucks and it's okay to feel stressed about it. (Now, I mean, I don't think you should complain to your husband every day about your job search while his dad is facing cancer, but I didn't get the impression that that is what you were doing or thinking about doing).
posted by Asparagus at 12:47 PM on August 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

Find someone to vent to other than your husband. I don't mean that you keep him out of the loop about what's going on with you, or that you go have some sort of emotional affair, or whatever. I mean a close friend who can listen to you when you feel shitty about what's going on with you and with your FIL and with your husband. A therapist, if you already have one, is a lovely neutral space for talking.

This article includes a drawing (you can click to enlarge it) about "dump out" and "comfort in". Put your FIL in the middle of the picture and work your way out. I have found it to be really, really helpful as a mental reminder to myself in terms of what to say, and what not to say, and as a reminder that I don't have to stuff my feelings down in the face of someone having a really shitty time - I just need to direct them appropriately.

Talk to your husband about what he needs. If he can't tell you (and it's possible he doesn't really know - grieving is hard, confusing work) that's okay. Don't push it. Try to cut him some slack and roll with the proverbial punches, and vent to that external person when you're struggling. Be as receptive as you can when he does want to talk about things. If his father is palliative, he likely wants/needs to be as focused on his father as humanly possible - to say goodbye, to close some books, to not have regrets after all is said and done.

But for you - practice good self-care, too. If the vacation isn't meant to be (and I totally get why that would be upsetting) set a new future event to look forward to. Cut yourself some slack. Don't feel bad about being upset about what's going on for you - just look for ways through it.
posted by VioletU at 12:47 PM on August 8, 2014 [19 favorites]

One of the challenging things about situations like this is that the person you'd ordinarily go to for comfort and companionship is in more urgent need of those things than you are. Please note that this doesn't mean you're a bad person, or being selfish, or anything like that. You get to have needs and wants and fears and all that stuff, even when your partner is going through a rough time.

But you do need to find ways of dealing with them that don't increase the load on your partner. If you have friends you can talk to about it, that's good; therapy is also good. Another possibility is a self-mentoring technique that Zen teacher Cheri Huber has been talking about for a few years now called recording & listening. Here's one interview with her about it; here's another interview (transcript).
posted by Lexica at 12:48 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Job issues come and go. Accept that you're in the market, and that you win some and you lose some and you'll eventually get a job you can be excited about. If you really think about it, now is not the greatest time to start a new job.

It's normal to be disappointed that you're not going on a much anticipated vacation. That's okay. But the reason you're not going is MUCH larger, and I know you know that.

Don't dump on your husband. Now may be a GREAT time to get a therapist to help you process all of this. Now may be a great time for HIM to get a therapist too! If not a therapist, a very good friend who will kick your ass upon occasion to keep it from turning into a pity party.

We all have bad times in our lives. We have to be resilient. It's hard when you feel beaten down, but keep telling yourself, "all of this is temporary, and as much as it sucks today, something better is around the corner." I'm a naturally optimistic person, so this mindset comes easily to me. If it doesn't come easily to you, act as if, until you do feel that way.

Good luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:54 PM on August 8, 2014

This may sound counterintuitive, but maybe take a break from the job search for a little while? You have so much going on right now. This is something that's totally optional. You already have one foot out the door at work, so allow yourself to go through the motions at work, cut out anything extra, and just do what you need to do to care for yourself and your family.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:57 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe a good compromise on the vacation is for the in-laws and your husband to give or sell the tickets to a friend or family member of yours and you go with them instead. It's worth a discussion.

I agree with calling off the job search for now and just phoning it in at work. If you can afford the worst case scenario, which is you slack so hard you get fired and go on unemployment, do it. The job market will still be there for you when your father in law passes away. Take as much stress off your own plate as possible.

Be open about your situation. A family member has a life threatening illness. Ask for help from coworkers, friends, your family and get some meals, housework, etc taken care of. This can lighten your load.

The key is for you to lighten your own burden of the daily routine so you can help with this family crisis. You don't have the emotional capacity to do that right now so job number one for you is to create that capacity. Don't do it all.

Good luck
posted by crazycanuck at 1:10 PM on August 8, 2014

I completely understand and do not fault you for your feelings, frustrations, and emotions.

That said, sometimes it can be incredibly helpful (to you) to get out of your own head by focusing your attention on helping someone else. Even if your husband was not going through the loss of a parent, my recommendation regarding your other questions would be the same - try to shift your focus to helping someone else who is struggling, or in need in some way. Not at the expense of yourself or your own mental well being, but as a way of helping yourself to get away from your own stresses.

Others are addressing ways to be there for your husband, but I really think that taking some of their advice and focusing your energy on doing those things will help you focus less on the frustrations and anxieties you are experiencing re: work and the job hunt.
posted by mingodingo at 1:31 PM on August 8, 2014

I try to apply for jobs when I get home from work but most of the time, I just want to crawl into bed.

Then maybe you should do that on some nights. When my special needs sons were little and I was dealing with chronic undiagnosed health issues, the single biggest sanity saver I found was take a nap, have a tall glass of water and/or eat something. Fifteen minutes of physically taking care of myself was very often the difference between "oh, god, I can't keep doing this" and "the sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow..."

Maybe you should give yourself permission to job hunt every other night and take care of yourself on the nights in between.

Also, as far as it being your job to be there for your husband in his crisis, yeah, that theory only works when one person is clearly the person in crisis and everyone else's life is just fine. That doesn't fly when you, he and everyone else are all hip deep in crisis, crisis, crisis. At that point, a) everyone needs to do a little giving and b) as much as possible, other things need to do some giving (see my suggestion above about scaling your job hunt back slightly so you can take care of yourself).

See if you can still go on vacation. Even if hubby keeps visiting family every weekend. If that vacation is helping you keep it together, your needs are not unimportant. Talk to hubby about that. See if you can come up with some sort of acceptable compromise or alternate vacation plans.

You know the saying: Put your oxygen mask on first. If you are falling completely apart, good intentions or no, you won't succeed in being a supportive wife. So figure out what you need to do for you so you can keep coping.
posted by Michele in California at 1:33 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

My mom got her stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis 3 weeks before our planned vacation to visit her. Our one week of vacation that year from our very stressful jobs. We still went to visit her along with my siblings, spouses and all of our kids - in one crazy house. So we could have as much time as possible with her. She died during our week's vacation.

My spouse never once complained about spending his one week's vacation cramped in a house with lots of people and craziness going on. The odd hours we took watch, the giving up fishing trips and beach time, and time with our friends who planned to be in town the same week we would be.

I keep things inside, but he was quietly supportive. He was just always there doing whatever needed to be taken care of (store runs, getting kids outside and entertained, etc). He made it known that he was there to listen but didn't push it on me. He understood my moods were up and down and didn't get annoyed with me.

I consider that week a blessing and am forever grateful for my spouse's role. You will both have many other vacations, even though I know you deserve this one. You will have times that you will need his support and he will remember this time and be willing to give it to you. It may be easier to wait a bit on the job front for less stressful timing too.

Best wishes.
posted by maxg94 at 1:37 PM on August 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Your emotions are your emotions, and people feel all sorts of different ways for all sorts of reasons; I don't think your emotions are anything you need to feel bad about. It is perfectly natural to be upset about the vacation since this was something you were really looking forward to at a time of great stress.

But. Something seems a bit off here. I hate to be blunt, but it sounds like your FIL is dying (not just sick), and clearly that is a billion times more important than the cancelled trip. You don't say anything about how close you are to your FIL and how his diagnosis is affecting *you*. If you are close to him, maybe you are in a bit of denial about his impending death and that's why you are focusing on the trip and your professional difficulties. Denial is adaptive, but maybe if you got clearer about what is behind your own emotions, you would find it easier to be supportive of your spouse. From everything you've said, you are being supportive of him, so you should just keep doing what you are doing, but you may also want to think about how you feel about the situation, independent of your husband and his grief.

And I agree with everyone who said that you need to find someone other than your husband to talk about your (quite natural and understandable) emotions of frustration and anger.
posted by girl flaneur at 1:38 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not to sound like a mefi cliche, but consider therapy. Therapy is a safe place where you can vent all of these emotions so that you don't feel like they're bubbling up inside you, ready to potentially spill out where they would make a mess. Having someone whose sole role in your life is to be a support to you can open up space in your head and heart to allow in patience and calm when vacations are cancelled and job hunts go awry.
posted by janey47 at 1:41 PM on August 8, 2014

In addition to, or instead of, therapy, you could also consider keeping a journal, joining an online support group or similar.

I haven't used it but here is a free online service for people who just need to talk about their problems.
posted by Michele in California at 1:44 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Listen to all the good advice above, and also reconsider this statement of yours: (I offered to go with him).

Maybe you just misspoke when you said this. This is not an "offer" situation. If he's going to visit them, then you're going too. This is your family too. Unless he brings up this issue himself, and communicates that he wants to make some of the visits alone (or unless you have an urgent need, which doesn't seem to be the case since you made the offer), this issue of your staying behind at home doesn't even come up.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:47 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

A few things.
One, things are just going to suck more than usual for a while.
Two, you are probably feeling some bad feelings about your FIL yourself and they are coming out in other ways (i.e. some of your feelings about "vacation" are probably cloaked feelings about losing your FIL, losing your husband-as-a-person-with-a-living-father, etc).
Three, it's totally fine to have whatever feelings you have.
Four, it's good to behave in as gentle a way as possible with your husband, who may act funny in any number of ways, and who it's good to shelter as much as you can. You can ask him how he'd like to be supported and you can do that. That's all you can do.
Five, call up a friend or your family and complain about how you feel bad about the job and the vacation.
Six, be gentle with yourself.
Seven, it's still going to suck sometimes. Hang in there.
posted by feets at 3:26 PM on August 8, 2014

I have been through many family death situations, including my husband's parents and extended relatives, cousins, people who were like aunts and uncles, etc.

One time I quit school to attend to a sick relative, who had fast-moving brain cancer, and help her and her family. Another time, I stopped everything and moved in with my Dad for a month and helped him when my Mom was in a coma after a stroke. I took care of my dying FIL while my husband and his brother both worked.

This is a time where you can take stock of why you are in the job stress drag (and I have been there, too, and it seemed like the job took over my life, until it was gone and then it didn't). If you really need the income, of course you have to keep at it. But could you afford some leave time? Both to help out and regroup yourself, mentally?

There is no magical solution when someone is dying. It is super stressful, and when one's parent is dying, it is on their mind all the time. It's okay to feel resentful when life deals you these chips. Man plans and the Gods laugh.

Then again, it's the cycle of life: we all will get sick or be dying at some point, and think about what you would want someone to do for you in that circumstance. I've had a relative die of lung cancer, and it's hard. You want to be there for them and you don't want them to suffer anymore, yet you don't want to lose them. It's really hard to watch someone die.

I know what it's like to be super stressed and then life deals you an extra stress sandwich on top that you did NOT order! You have to have an outlet somewhere. Trust me, if you feel like this now, you will feel it more and more as time goes on, with your FIL's illness. The stress and resentment will only get worse and build.

Some suggestions: you can plan your own mini vacation for yourself; a dual spa treatment for you and your husband; hire a cleaning service, or subscribe to a meal service, anything that makes you feel less stressed, that you think of as a treat.

Also, think about things you've always wanted to do, but never have. And then pick one and plan to do it. Parasailing, crosspoint, studying ancient Egypt, white water rafting, reading that special book, etc. Forget about a family vacation, replace it with something else.

I have found online forums related to the specific illness to be somewhat helpful. Not in reading them every day, but in knowing that there are others who are going through the same thing. Death is a messy thing sometimes, and it's often very hard on the families, not because of accepting a terminal illness prognosis, but what to expect. And often doctors are not very forthcoming, and you learn bit by bit that this will happen or that, and it's often helpful to know what to expect to both help you and your dying relative.

Take care, Sister, I feel your pain. I hope things get better for you soon. {{{{Hugs}}}}}
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:33 PM on August 8, 2014

Sounds like you need an outlet! So either a friend or a journal/therapist or a hobby (e.g. volunteering).

Also I don't think you're being a jerk for feeling disappointed about things that are not going your way. Hang in there and try to live by your principles of being a supportive wife/hard work/not giving up, and I think it's okay to talk to your husband too (gently, without blaming anyone) just tell him how you feel!! He's your husband! He loves you! He will want to support you too!

It sounds like a really tough time but I guess life is about the ups as well as the downs and that is beautiful in its own way. (Sorry for being annoyingly abstract). You can get through this! And things are going to get better.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 12:51 AM on August 9, 2014

Thank you for your perspective, folks. I think I just got into a Sad Spiral and thinking that I am a monster for being sad. Husband talked to his dad yesterday and his dad said not to come this weekend. I think he was rather upbeat so my husband felt better after he talked to him. It just happened that on Thursday, his dad had his biopsy and I got rejected from two jobs.

With work, some of my tasks are annual so I'm in the middle of one project with another on the horizon. Every time I have to put another date in my calendar, part of me gets really sad, thinking that I will still be there for that thing. Husband has encouraged me to just quit repeatedly but I think that I would feel worse not working than I do working. I try to cheer myself up every time I fill out a time card and think, I put up with crap for another two weeks, another paycheck towards supporting my family and earning paid time off to spend with them. I'm also trying to be more productive at work and work out during the day so I feel proud of myself. Those things got a little ignored last week but I'll try harder this week.

The other thing that I didn't mention, in the interests of not having a wall of text, is that my sister had a baby a month ago and I've been sad that I haven't been able to see them. Maybe we can go next week. I also started looking at going in September for a long weekend. I'm worried about burning through vacation days when I'm job-hunting - what if I don't have enough days around the holidays? - but I'll deal somehow. One of thing I hate about my job is that they're stingy with time off so now I feel like I'm wasting precious vacation days. I know the answer is not to waste them but easier said than done.

I do not have a problem putting the job search on hold and crawling into bed immediately after work occasionally - I think that's why the job search is taking so long :-) I am more or less prepared to leave my job, which is freeing.

It's possible that I'm projecting sadness about my FIL to sadness over vacation. FIL with lung cancer is kind of abstract, not being able to use the stuff I bought for vacation is more tangible. I feel like the vacation is symbolic of how shit is going to get bad and soon. But one day at a time.

Regarding offering to go with him, when husband went, he decided on Tuesday to leave on Thursday. I couldn't take Friday off of work without calling in sick and I had already signed up to volunteer Friday and Sunday. I told him that I could go, he told me I didn't have to go, I took that at face value. But I'm planning to go next time.

I'm also striving to remind myself of how awesome husband was when my mother died and thinking of what I would want him to do if my dad was sick. I'm trying to take care of others as a distraction. Cooking is good. I can make dinner for my husband. I'm going to try to make cookies for his father and some others who might appreciate them.

Thanks again and please feel free to add anything if you have any additional advice.
posted by kat518 at 4:51 PM on August 9, 2014

First-It's father-in-law's decision about vacation. Just because he has stage four doesn't mean he is not able to do things at this point, depending on what his docs say. (I had a friend with this diagnosis who actually kept on working for a bit, etc.)

Second, if you do have the finances, just take the days you need and then if you need more, quit. Some things are more important than extra money, and you are about to find that out in a pretty big way.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:15 PM on August 9, 2014

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