Sick, estranged parent and toxic family
March 21, 2016 11:32 PM   Subscribe

Estranged parent is ill. Toxic family member has moved in. Advice on how to convey caring while maintaining safety is needed.

My husband’s mother is ill with what may be a terminal disease. My husband is estranged from her and his siblings, though not by choice. He would call and visit, knowing he’d be the usual punching bag for her, but his brother is living with her now.

MIL was recently diagnosed with a malignant and aggressive form of cancer. Prior to this, she and my husband had been functionally estranged for more than a year.

MIL verbally and emotionally abuses husband, though he ignores and forgets it almost immediately, but she got much nastier once husband terminated his relationship with his youngest brother. Youngest brother’s behavior is dangerous and scary: he chose us as his preferred targets about two years ago – long story – and husband drew a boundary. Since then, we’ve ignored the ongoing threats and harassment via voicemail, email, and text. We’ve spoken to a few lawyers, and not only did they want to pursue restraining orders, they felt criminal harassment and attempted extortion charges were likely. Youngest brother has smeared and threatened others, and followed through on threats, but is mostly charming to those he wants to impress. He can be violent in his rages.

MIL has been copied on some of the most vicious emailed threats from youngest brother. But either she thinks we deserve this treatment because we refuse to play the toxic family game of reprisal, escalation, and capitulation or that we should just get used to it because that’s “how he is” – probably both – she has never tried to defend my husband or tell youngest brother to stop. Any conversations husband and his mother had turned into her berating him or telling him to give money to youngest brother. Yes. This is insane. We’ve only managed to protect ourselves from his threats (threatening false reports to CPS, employers, police, etc.) by stopping even the trivial information train and not letting them know anything of our lives. Filing for a restraining order just seems like it might give him the narcissistic supply he’s after, and filing criminal charges seems more effort than it’s worth (this could change, of course). Because of her stories about us, we’ve been cut off from the rest of husband’s extended family. FIL is dead.

So. MIL is sick. She and FIL were divorced and she has remarried. She and her new husband seem happy and well off. But youngest brother has moved in to tend her. He does not work and his new story seems to be that he is having to care for very ill mother while we ignore her. We will not call or visit while he is there. We don’t know what MIL’s new husband thinks of this arrangement. My heart breaks, because, while she’s decided she hates me, I’m sorry for her. And I’m sorry for the waste of motherhood. My husband would like to visit, because that’s what is expected, but is also practical about the danger his brother poses – I wouldn’t put it past him to spike a drink, plant illegal drugs, or pull a gun. Even if he weren’t there, MIL would punish husband for not “supporting” youngest brother.

I'm leery of writing letters, sending flowers, or anything else because any outreach on our side seems to trigger a new wave of nastiness. Youngest brother appears to now have access to MIL's phone. At a loss. Your wisdom is welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Stay the hell away. Seriously. She doesn't want you there and it sounds dangerous as heck. No good can come of it. MIL has made her choices, let her roll that dice.
posted by Jubey at 11:52 PM on March 21, 2016 [25 favorites]

I'm entirely confused.

Toxic abusive sibling is in control of the situation - it's over. Nothing more to be done. All others involved are OK with how things are. That is final.

You want Wisdom? Really? Do nothing.

Mourn and support in your thoughts, stay far far away from any family dysfunction. It's over. Walk away.

I have deeper thoughts about this because I'm in your situation. You can intuit all of it. Your presence adds zero. Their dysfunctional perspectives take dominance over any adult gestures you make. You should not never NO jump back into that pool of dysfunction.

There is no comfort to give. It's too dangerous. Step away
posted by jbenben at 11:58 PM on March 21, 2016 [17 favorites]

When my mother became conservator for her mother and stepfather her coke head brother began threatening her , me and my brother. She got a restraining order which he violated , resulting in his being sent to jail for several months. He OD'd a year and a half ago and I'm not sorry.

This also looks like an elder abuse situation that should be reported, which doesn't mean that MIL has to be part of your life once this has happened.
posted by brujita at 1:16 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a slightly different opinion. When someone in someone's family of origin is dying, things get very personal. Your husband has to handle this in a way he can live with for the rest of his life. It shouldn't be picked because it's the best strategy. Your post didn't say much about what is in your husband's heart to do, but I think you should support him in doing whatever that is.
posted by salvia at 1:39 AM on March 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

"So. MIL is sick."

I am sorry you and your husband are going through this. But judging by her treatment of your husband, MIL was sick even before the cancer. Even taking the BIL out of the story, emotional abuse is still abuse.

What you haven't stated is what your husband wants to do with this. You absolutely DO NOT have to get involved. Neither does he.

Keep in mind that death and illness often bring out the worst in families.
posted by Brittanie at 2:32 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Send anonymous flowers.

Get husband to therapy.

Call social services about the situation, anonymously, maybe through a lawyer.

That's about it.
posted by zennie at 4:02 AM on March 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

She's made her choice. Help him cope with it by allowing him to move on. Don't bring up his family to him. If he wants to talk, listen passively without adding fuel to the fire. Help him let go. This part of his life is lost to him.

To help with his grief, you and he both can start thinking about ways to honor her life. If there is a charity that she is passionate about, make a donation in her name, or plant a rose bush in your garden that reminds him of happy times with her. But don't encourage him to see her or reach out to her in any way while she is alive. It will add stress to her that isn't worth it.
posted by myselfasme at 4:26 AM on March 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your husband is totally, absolutely, positively correct to have cut these people out of his life. And I'm sorry to say this, but your wanting to re-open contact might sound like the kind thing on the surface, but it's undercutting your husband's own clearly-expressed desires, in the name of what? Family unity or something like that?

I've got to guess that you've been lucky enough not to have toxic people like MIL and BIL in your own family, so you really haven't lived through the harm they can cause --- you've seen a small portion of it, in their treatment of your husband, but you haven't experienced (other than as a comparatively-recent onlooker) the years and years of hurt they put him through. The kindest thing you can do for your spouse is to follow his lead, not shove him into unwillingly reconnecting with people who even you acknowledge have been, are now, and will continue to be, harmful to him.
posted by easily confused at 4:29 AM on March 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm estranged from my parent and, like you are being to your husband, the people closest to me often pose the 'you are going to feel terrible if he gets sick and dies' without me reaching out. It's hard to explain to those who wish the best for me, but I've made my peace with that eventuality.

What I've thought about when dealing with abusive people (or if one is dealing with any significantly awful life circumstance) is that whatever you choose, you have a hard road: The road of no contact is hard. The road of contact is hard. Contact brings with it the possibility, no - the certainty, of more injury and pain. I wouldn't do it.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:52 AM on March 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Unless your husband has expressed a desire to visit or whatever, I'd drop it.

If he has decided to try to make contact, I'd question the wisdom of it. She is not going to suddenly change. She is not pining for him, or regretting her actions in this mess. It sucks, but there it is.

The best thing you can do is to support your husband in NOT involving himself in this. There's nothing there for him, and frankly, BIL scares the bejesus out of me and I wouldn't want ANYTHING to do with him.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:47 AM on March 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

The restraining order won't do anything to stop BIL, but the consequences will be more severe for him if he violates it.
posted by brujita at 7:09 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The thing that stands out to me is that your H wants to visit "because that’s what is expected". Letting go (or in this case saying "eff that!") of what is "expected" is SO freeing. Who is expecting this of your H? There is no rule that you have to stay in communication with your abuser simply because you are related to them.

I'd wash my hands of all of them and leave them to their toxic misery. I'd also reconsider the restraining order and criminal charges. Again, you do not have to accept the abuse simply because you are related to someone. That relation is NEVER going to make them wake up and say "oh wow, I really need to stop being an asshole to this person, he is my brother for cripe's sake!".

This is a case where continued interaction of any sort is making you a willing participant to the abuse.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 7:55 AM on March 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

Nthing do not underestimate the crazy shit siblings/relatives will pull when the cancer fever is strong. While cancer does happen to good people, it also happens to assholes. When it happens to assholes, anyone who is not an asshole around them is fair game to become the target/victim/scapegoat of the cancer sufferer's associated following of assholes. I speak from experience when fours years ago my bat-shit mental father got his second cancer (because, you know, drinking and smoking after the first cancer was removed was real smart). What I did wrong was be around to help. That resulted in blocked access to my own vehicle, belongings, safe housing, and employment by so-called "family" after my father's death. This resulted in me fleeing to a women's shelter for two weeks to escape the escalating cycle of drinking and driving (after which I had to stealthily "steal" my belongings off the property and board with people who blamed me for my situation because they were friends of the assholes until I had a steady enough job to leave). The people who did that to me are dead to me now. There is no prison cell or women's shelter compelling enough for me to allow those people back into my life. I still cry to this day how grateful I am that I never had kids, because I can only imagine what would have been done to them as 'retribution' by the assholes in these sick, dysfunctional families.

So I mean it: do not underestimate what crazy can happen after a parent dies in a dysfunctional family. In my case, father never stopped feeding the crazy he had so carefully cultivated in his son (my sibling) to keep him so loyal (let alone express any regrets over his actions which resulted in his other children estranging from him). I never stood a chance. What I've learned is that if someone has it in their head to hurt you - even if they're "family" - the best thing you can do is recognize it, be mindful of it, and adjust your boundaries/expectations accordingly. To me it sounds like your BIL will get more intense when MIL passes, which I think is something you and your husband should be prepared for. Do support your husband to make his peace with his mother in whatever way works for him, but do not allow yourselves to become the next targets for that undischarged intergenerational rage. Come up with an immunity strategy for the crazy (i.e. reframing from "he is having to care for very ill mother while we ignore her" to "he is stepping up to care for her while we love her from a distance"). Find a way to make your egos guilt-repellent from any crazy-induced bullsh*t BIL will attempt to feed your way to help relieve his own ego of the self-harm he's been doing to himself by staying loyal to the family dysfunction. Tread lightly, and good luck!

Incidentally if I 'need' to think about my dad these days, I sing my own version of "Home Sweet Home" by Lindemann on guitar as often as necessary. That's been better grief therapy than any counselor or therapist I've tried to talk to about that experience. YMMV.
posted by human ecologist at 7:55 AM on March 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

Things don't get better because people are sick. The idea that engulfing yourself back into a toxic situation because someone is on the verge of dying takes the idea of "closure" (which I personally think we've all built up in our minds to mean more than it does) much too far.

Seeing someone who has mistreated you just before they die doesn't often do all that much for anyone involved, except perhaps put them all on a false state of "best behavior" for the length of the visit. If you're lucky, that person passes shortly after the visit, so you can fool yourself into thinking that there was some change in the relationship. If you're not, what you do is re-open something that should have remained closed.

The fact that there's a healthy, even more toxic person involved in this drama makes it even more imperative that you all stay far away. Your husband and you can work through whatever issues you have with the familial relationships in a safer place, far away from these people.
posted by xingcat at 7:55 AM on March 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

The "tragedy allows bad/crazy person to see the light and become good/reasonable person" trope is exclusive to movies. It rarely, if ever, happens in real life.

If reaching out causes more grief and drama, then just don't do it. Send anonymous flowers, nice throw blankies, etc, to make her feel better. You can sign, "from bla bla bla community members" to avoid suspicion and avoid unnecessary drama. There's a chance that anything you send, anonymously or not, might be claimed by psycho brother as his gift. But in the end, whom it came from doesn't matter as long as mom is happy with gifts. Your husband will know the truth. And that's what's important here.
posted by Neekee at 8:32 AM on March 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

My husband would like to visit... I'm leery of writing letters, sending flowers, or anything else because any outreach on our side seems to trigger a new wave of nastiness

Slight derail, but I am surprised by how many commenters are reading this question as the OP pushing husband to re-establish contact. I didn't get that at all from the question.
posted by Brittanie at 8:50 AM on March 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

Advice on how to convey caring while maintaining safety is needed.

Sometimes, you cannot do both. Sometimes, you need to choose one or the other. It sounds to me like you need to err on the side of maintaining safety.

You can try to intercede anonymously, such as reporting elder abuse. Do not expect to get credit for any of it. In fact, assume that whatever you do -- including nothing -- it will be interpreted in the worst way possible.

This sounds like a situation where you would need The A Team to cover you in order to "convey caring." They don't exist. It was just a fictional TV show.

I am so sorry.
posted by Michele in California at 12:02 PM on March 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Slight derail, but I am surprised by how many commenters are reading this question as the OP pushing husband to re-establish contact. I didn't get that at all from the question.

Same here. To expand on my comment above, if your husband is wanting to visit, especially if he still wants to even after being reassured that he doesn't have to follow some social convention here, I think it would be a kindness to see if you can support him in doing so, even if that increases the drama. If he's holding back to minimize the impact to you, it would be kind to let him know you're willing to tolerate some impact.

And maybe you can't, because you feel the drama could be life threatening or harm your children or something. In that case, I'd have some real heart-to-heart conversations about this.

What everyone says is probably correct: that drama will increase and closure will be elusive. But sometimes you need to say something to hear yourself say it, regardless of what the other person says in return.
posted by salvia at 10:04 PM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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