How to support my grieving mother when I'm grieving too?
May 2, 2016 5:56 AM   Subscribe

My mother is not coping well with my grandmother's impending death. My mother and I have a complicated and not particularly close relationship, and her coping style is hitting a lot of nerves about the crappier aspects of my childhood and I'm finding it really difficult to support her while keeping my own head above water. Any advice or stories from people who can relate would be appreciated. Wall of snowflakes below the cut.

My grandmother is dying of late-stage dementia and other complications. In the last month she's gotten a lot worse- she's forgotten her own name, how to feed herself, and how to walk. She is in a high-care home, her prognosis is days to over a year. My grandmother has lived in the family home with me my whole life growing up (until I moved out at age 17) and was like a parent to me.

I was raised by my grandmother and my mother in very much the "toughen the f**k up" style of parenting. When I found out as an 11-year-old that my dad had cancer and my grandma found me crying in my room she told me to stop being so selfish since it's harder for my dad. When my dad died later that year my mom explicitly told me not to cry in front of her or talk to her about how sad I was becasue she couldn't cope with that; I never did. My mom has given me no tools for dealing with grief or intimacy other than just "grin and bare it" and "pretend emotions don't exist". I struggled with this for years and continue to struggle with intense feelings of loneliness at times and assume this dates back to my childhood. She has almost never hugged/been physically affectionate with me since I was a child, we never talk about emotions, she doesn't tell me she loves me (I know she does in her own way, strongly). Three times in my life I've reached out to her when I've been going through very difficult periods and she's provided a place to stay if needed, a bit of money, but never much emotional support (making fun of me for being "needy", telling me to "get over it"). We never talk about personal things in any depth.

I don't dwell on the negatives of my upbringing much; I understand that my grandmother and mom lived through a lot (my grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive), there's cultural aspects to their attitudes (my grandmother is Russian). There is a lot I treasure about my childhood, my family and who it made me- I grew up surrounded by humour, creativity, intellectual stimulation, work ethic, stoicism.

I have a decent relationship with my mom. We usually talk to each other like good colleagues or moderately good but standoff-ish friends, but too much time together and I start to loose my patience and I start to feel upset and a bit angry and then she gets angry at me for being rude. I've found the right amount to see her/ talk on the phone that we can have a good time together without things getting tense, but the current situation means that I am seeing her every day (at her request).

I think I'm well adjusted enough as an adult- friends and exes think I'm very tough and a little bit cold at times but I've done my best to not recreate the pattern and I'm warm, cuddly and emotionally intimate with the people I'm close to. I'm coping fine with my grandmother's impending death- she's had a very good run, she's not in pain, she's very good natured in her dementia (still laughs and smiles). I'm sad, I cry, I remember the good times, I visit her and hold her hand and we talk nonsense together and laugh and it's sad but it's life.

What I'm not coping with is my mother's reaction. My mother has gone from being stiff upper lip her entire life, and expecting the same of me, to being incredibly emotional about my grandmother's approaching death. This has been going on for a long time, and gotten more extreme for over a month now since my grandmother took a turn for the worst. My mom cries frequently but if I try to even pat her on the shoulder it's just incredibly awkward (and then I get upset because it brings up a lot of stuff for me- jeez I wanted a hug sometimes as a kid), she still expects me to be tough, she is playing the martyr and setting unrealistic goals for herself as well as myself about how long we need to spend visiting my grandmother (several hours a day) and not exercising self-care and getting angry when it is suggested and guilt-tripping me for not visiting my grandmother daily and for continuing to do the things that keep me happy. She is being quite selfish at times in a way I find difficult to deal with- the example of this that bothers me the most is that when we talk about it she only wants to talk about how difficult it is for her. She talks to me and her friends at length (and some of these friends have been through extreme losses such as losing children, having a husband a with long-term degenerative illness) about how difficult this situation is for her with no perspective or regard for others' feelings or acknowledging any of the positives of the situation (there are positives that I keep reminding myself of and that's how I'm coping- my grandmother has had a long and amazing life, she's not suffering too much, she's receiving a good standard of care) or good times in the past.

This year has been really hard for me- I've had a really difficult run at work, I had to travel a lot for work and have been feeling isolated and lonely, I was dumped at the end of March after a relationship that only lasted a few months but that had gotten quite serious and it was quite heartbreaking.

I'm at a loss for how to support my mother through this while keeping myself above water and navigating a whole host of nerves that this situation is hitting for me. It takes so much energy to get through the day not snapping at her and then I feel like an awful daughter and a hypocrite.
posted by hotcoroner to Human Relations (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm so sorry you're going through this and totally get where you're coming from! Your feelings are totally normal, and you are not an awful daughter for having them!

You need somewhere to express those feelings that's not your mom, though, because 1) she's unlikely to be helpful; 2) they're about her; and 3) she's got her own stuff going on right now and you don't want to burden her.

If you have close friends you can talk to about this, that would be great, but I know there have been times in my life when I didn't have any friends I would be comfortable talking about this kind of stuff with.

Otherwise, this seems like a great time to schedule a few therapy sessions to help you process this stuff. Or maybe some kind of support group?
posted by mskyle at 6:03 AM on May 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Grief does NOT give anyone permission to be abusive to others.

It's understandable that your mother is upset about her mother, but that doesn't mean no-one else is allowed to grieve or feel pain. Your mother's insistence that SHE is the only person hurting, that SHE is the only person whose feelings matter or are real is wrong --- and the way she's treating you is flat-out abusive.

Walk away. When she pulls this belittling behavior, literally walk away or hang up the phone. Maybe tell her ONCE (no 'I'm telling you again I won't listen to this') and that's it.
posted by easily confused at 6:39 AM on May 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: This may be hard to hear.

You are not responsible for your mother's emotional well-being. You're not. You feel natural compassion for her, and a natural desire to lessen the suffering of someone you love. But the amount of compassion your mother will be able to take in is a matter for her to sort through herself. You cannot do it for her and it is not your responsibility to make this easier on her. It's your job to take care of yourself and act in accordance with your own values. If that means you sit while she rails about the unfairness of it all? If that is in accordance with your values and you can stomach it without falling into a depression or having a panic attack yourself, do that. If it means sitting quietly with her while she cries? Do that. If it means not remaining in the line of fire of her rage because it brings up all your own rage? Do not remain. Acting with integrity is key; that way, no matter what happens, you won't feel as though you let yourself down.

My own brother died two years ago. My father lashed out at everyone and my mother glommed harder onto him, her abusive spouse of almost 50 years, than she ever has. Here is what I did, and what I'm still doing:

- After a particularly gruesome scene immediately after my brother's death, I put my father on notice that I would not accept abuse. I did not, though he lashed out at my setting a firm boundary, as well. But I stuck to my guns- I do not provide an audience for abuse, and neither should you.

- I called my parents every night for two weeks after my brother's death. This helped my mother immensely because she had just lost one child and her instinct was to make sure of her other child. I understood this because I'm a mother, too. This felt right for me and I knew instinctively, too, when the crisis point had passed and I didn't need to check in every night. It was helpful to me, too, to be close to my parents in some way so that we could learn to relate to each other in a new way. This was the beginning of a much longer process that is on-going.

- I got off the phone when my father started rambling or being abusive or just talking me to death to the point I was emotionally waterlogged. It feels cold to say, "I'm sorry, I really can't stay on the phone any longer. I'll talk to you tomorrow." when someone's lost their son and is going on and on about why, but I'd lost my brother, and I didn't need to carry my father's grief, as well, or continuously bear the brunt of his yelling and ugliness. In retrospect now, I'm glad I was honest and cut things off when it was too much. It sent a message that they had to get help outside of our family to cope.

If you will actually be in the same physical space as your mom, I think you would be wise to have places you need to be if things go pear-shaped emotionally. "Mom, I know how much pain you're in. I'm in pain, too. Unfortunately, I've got to (get work done, get the house cleaned, finish Project X, meet a friend for coffee, get some rest) in a few minutes. Let's check in tomorrow."

- When my parents found a grief share group at their church they felt brave enough to attend, I encouraged it strongly.

- I got my back into therapy with my own therapist of many years. We talked weekly for about four months. Now I call when I need to.

Let me warn you - your mother probably won't change toward you after your grandmother dies. She likely won't realize she made a hash of things emotionally for you. She doesn't have the capacity to accept things like that, make amends, and move on in a new spirit with you. She is who she is and you should focus on acting in accordance with your own values - kindness, strength, honesty, compassion - but do not expect anything back that is vastly different from what your relationship is now. I thought when my brother died and I was my parents' sole surviving child they would...maybe love me harder or more? But, if my father does love me differently or value me differently, he doesn't show it. If anything, he's pushed me away harder than before. My mother makes more of an effort to be a presence in my son's life but with me, things are pretty much what they always were.

Best of luck. Don't forget - losing your grandmother is a loss for you, too. Your loss. Take care of yourself first.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:47 AM on May 2, 2016 [19 favorites]

Best answer: "Mom, there's a social worker/support group/resource that can address X aspect. I'm struggling, too."

"Blank's office at Grandma's care center is open if you have questions."

"Thanks for your concern about my schedule, I'm working closely with Grandma's caregivers."

"I love Grandma. I'm working closely with Grandma's caregivers too make sure my visitation schedule meets her needs."

"I'm sorry we are going through this. I love Grandma, too."

Just memorize a few stock phrases and use them. Ignore/excuse yourself when your mother is interacting with her friends. Those are her relationships to manage, nothing there that is your business.

So, it seems like you parented yourself growing up, and now you need to learn how to access and accept some support for yourself. I think you should reach out to whatever resources are appropriate and avail yourself to no end of the care and concern that is available to people in your position. This might include grieving your lost potential relationship with your mother.

It's appropriate to put down your mother's burdens because she has her own journey and she can't grow if you are doing her work for her. Boundaries are your friend. Your mom will be fine. I know it hurts to see both your grandmother and mom suffer so please get a support system going for you, this includes boundaries with your mom. Take care.
posted by jbenben at 6:49 AM on May 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Given the background you've provided, this seems like a complicated situation, having to do with what your mother "expects" you to do as a good child, and the conflicting emotions over the stoicism of your childhood. Perhaps it was a survival method, where if they showed weakness, abuse would be sure to follow, and now that there is no danger, it's just become an ingrained pattern. Or just patterns learned over the years due to surviving hardships. Some people believe expressing too much emotion will drag you down further, and this may be the only appropriate and culturally accepted time for your mother to express emotion.

Suggest you find a counselor to talk to, whether it's a social worker at your grandmother's care center (they might have one, or referrals to counselors), or a grief therapist. Doubtful you would be able to get your mother to go to one. Is there a religious figure who could lend her an ear? Also: if other family members and friends want to listen to her, that's on them, not on you. Let them set their own boundaries. You are not responsible for your mother's behavior, only your reaction to her behavior.

Do think you have to distance yourself politely, as much as possible, because for your own sake, anything you say now will most likely be remembered for years, and brought up in the future. When my mom was in the hospital, I found long walks in nature (away from all other relatives) to be helpful.

Maybe you can use the excuse of more work. Is it possible to substitute small gifts, such as tea and cookies, then say, "so sorry, Mom, have to work overtime, but here, this is for you!"

I'm sorry you are going through this. I've found it helpful in these types of situations to remember that it is only temporary, and have a mantra of "this too shall pass!" in my head (along with the long walks ALONE). Good luck.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:00 AM on May 2, 2016

This is not an uncommon dynamic in people of your mom's generation and older. There is still an immense shame, to them, in going to an actual therapist and needing help for "trivial" issues such as emotional upset. Unfortunately, their unaddressed needs don't go away by force of will, and while they often think they are dealing fine, everyone else is actually bearing the brunt of their emotional storms. A process made harder by their inability to admit they are even having emotional storms.

So what often happens is that you get drafted as a makeshift therapist/punching bag. This is not ok.

I would talk to your own therapist about the best way to proceed, feel no shame in setting boundaries with your mom, and point her towards the options available. It is ok to straight up tell her "Mom, I am not a therapist, I can't help you with this stuff, I'm not trained for it, and I have my own sadness to carry. You're using me instead of getting the help you need. Call someone from the list I gave you, and they can help you cope much better than I can." And then enforce your boundaries/leave/hang up/whatever you need to do.

It's not wrong to tell a drowning person to reach for a life-saver ring rather than let them take you down with them. You're trying to make sure you both survive.
posted by emjaybee at 7:23 AM on May 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

You have to take care of you. Just as your mother told you so long ago, you're allowed to say, more kindly to her, "Mom, I love you and we're dealing with Grandma in different ways. I want to support you, and I also need to take care of myself what I'm doing for you and Grandma is what I can do."

Then establish some boundaries. If your Mom want to have long hand wringing phone calls, you can end them with, "Mom, I know you need to talk more about this. I need to go. Please give some thoughts to joining a support group and getting a therapist." Keep repeating it.

Guilt trips only work if you let them. Recognize that your Mom's way of dealing with things is different from yours and she can do her, you can do you. "Mom, Granny isn't aware of whether I'm here or not. If it makes you feel better to carry on a bedside vigil, that's for you. I'm here when I can be and that's for me." Keep repeating it.

If your mom says something that hurts your feelings, tell her so, "Mom, that hurts my feelings, I don't love grandma less, we have different ways of doing things. I'm leaving/hanging up now."

If your mother gives you grief for not being there for her say to her, "Mom, I'm dealing with a lot in my life, and I'm here for you now. We can either support each other nicely, or I'll leave until you're ready to accept what I'm able to give you." If she keeps on hassling you about the fact that you're not doing enough, "Mom, I'm doing what I can. You don't seem to be in a frame of mind to accept that now, so I'll be leaving/hanging up now."

It's not cruel, disrespectful or wrong to grieve and deal with this situation in a way that's right for you. Your mother can tend to her methods.

Much luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:46 AM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am sorry you are going through this. I went through a very similar situation last year. I don't really have any advice that is different to what has been suggested above but I can offer my own experience.

For me, I eventually told my mother that I would only be able to speak with her on my own terms and requested that she stopped contacting me. I would contact her when I felt I could handle the interaction. When the memorial service came around, I asked a friend to drive me there and back home again so that I didn't have to travel with her. Making space for myself and my own feelings was something which allowed me to be there for her in a minimal way.

Some time later she acknowledged how she had behaved and apologised. You may or may not ever receive the same courtesy from your own mother but in my case, taking space for myself was enough for her to have to think about how I was also struggling.
posted by veids at 11:47 AM on May 2, 2016

My family dynamic is different from yours, so I can't give you advice there. I can tell you that when my grandma was dying my mom really appreciated getting out of the house for a little while and doing something totally normal. Our thing was to go to dunkin donuts and just have a friendly visit. I kept it really light emotionally speaking and we just hung out.
Good luck.
posted by Biblio at 1:36 PM on May 2, 2016

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