Life is unfair
July 14, 2017 11:28 AM   Subscribe

My mom's cousin is dying of pancreatic cancer and I want to be supportive of my family without overstepping boundaries.

Let's call her Sarah. She has stopped chemo and is receiving comfort care at home. She has four young children. She was diagnosed about two years ago and I have not seen or spoken with her since her diagnosis. Before that time I would see her briefly once a year, or once every two years. She lives 6 hours away from me. She wasn't able to attend my wedding due to her illness (and she communicated that to me via her mom, or I would have used that RSVP as an opportunity to express my condolences).

I am thinking of her, and her mother (my great aunt) all the time. It will be the second, and last, child that my great aunt has lost. I am thinking of my grandma often as well, as the stress triggered a gallbladder attack and she was hospitalized for the first time in sixty years (she's ok now).

Should I let my cousin know I am thinking of her? Is that even helpful at all? Or my aunt? I don't want to force a relationship that we never had but this situation is unfair and sad and I want to acknowledge that. But I care more about the feelings of my family than my need to acknowledge it, so I am asking for guidance.

Sarah is a very private person, and my understanding is that she is really only in face to face contact with her parents, her husband and her kids. She sees my grandma at times but not recently. My mom is in contact with Sarah's mother and she is really struggling.

What is appropriate for me to do? If the answer is "nothing, but show up to the funeral" that is okay too.
posted by pintapicasso to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Both my experience and the advice I have always gotten is that it's never a bad idea to reach out to someone who is grieving. Send Sarah a letter--not condolences, but just a "thinking of you and your family" message. Reach out to her mom and your grandma, too. Maybe you'll develop a closer relationship with your aunt, or maybe it will just be a small moment of support in her struggles, but telling someone you're thinking of them is pretty much never the wrong move.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:34 AM on July 14, 2017 [18 favorites]

Given that there doesn't seem to be any sort of ongoing conflict between you, there can't be anything wrong with sending her a simple card telling her that you're thinking of her and sending her your love. Using snail-mail means she will feel little pressure to respond. But you can put your phone number or email address after your signature if you think she doesn't have it.

Cancer, especially terminal cancer, can be incredibly isolating. There aren't many people who want their dying to go totally unacknowledged. It's just that a lot of ill people don't have time or energy to manage demanding social interactions, which a card is not.
posted by praemunire at 11:34 AM on July 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would send her a card, but reach out specifically to your grandma and mom. They may be able to tell you what would be more appropriate for your aunt and cousin in terms of additional contact.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

What gideonfrog said. Also, if there's anything you can say about her that is true ("I appreciate how welcoming you were whenever we met") and wonderful, by all means include it.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:36 AM on July 14, 2017

Send her a card. Send everyone cards. When I had cancer I heard from very distant relatives I never talk to otherwise and I appreciated every bit their effort to let me know I was in their thoughts.
posted by something something at 11:39 AM on July 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

Absolutely you should let her know you're thinking of her. Call her. I wrote a book about this. It's called I Am Here: Stories from a Cancer Ward. And also this article in the Guardian.
posted by toycamera at 11:42 AM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

My aunt died of cancer this past spring, having been terminal since the late fall. At Christmas, I sent her a card telling her how much she meant to me, and sharing some memories of being at her place as a kid. I didn't talk about the cancer, I talked about her impact on me and said I hoped she was feeling well today. I know from my cousins that she appreciated it.

If you appreciate her, tell her now.
posted by sadmadglad at 12:01 PM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

In my experience with family deaths and my own cancer, the worst thing is hearing nothing at all. Cards are not invasive, so I would absolutely send her a card - and send cards to your great-aunt and grandma as well. Not to be nitpicky, but don't say "how welcoming you were" (past tense); say something like "how welcoming you have been."

Is it possible for you to offer to take the children out for a bit? If you could, it would be good for them and for their mother and grandmother too.
posted by FencingGal at 12:02 PM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

When my grandma was dying, my aunt asked her friends to send cards of love and support to my grandparents.
Though my grandmother was too far gone with dementia to appreciate them, my grandpa really enjoyed getting them and I do think they helped him. When she died, my grandpa got flowers from people he had never met; they were friends and coworkers of my aunt. He still found it very touching, despite having no relationship with these people.

Being family, even if distant, I think it's absolutely appropriate to reach out and likely to appreciated. I do think, given she is a very private person, that it's a good idea to reach out to her mother as well to get an idea of what kind of contact Sarah is comfortable with, if you want to go beyond a "thinking of you" card. I think a call or visit would likely be appreciated, but it's always best to check that that's something she has the energy for--it can be very draining to be around people you don't know well at the best of times, so this may be a situation where she appreciates your thoughts but may not be up to directly engaging with you. A card should be fine, though.
posted by brook horse at 12:05 PM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Send a card, but beyond that I really, really would not interject yourself into Sarah's situation. She has her mother, her spouse and her children and it sounds like that's all she wants in hospice. The work of dying is often insular and focused.

However, if you actually genuinely want to be of service to Sarah, you can reach out regularly to her mother. (Sarah is supported by her mother; you and your mother support Sarah's mother.) Send postcards. Send flowers. Leave messages. Ask your mom what you can do that Sarah's mom would see as supportive.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:44 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

You don't specify how old they are but I suggest you also send something to each kid, assuming they are old enough recognize their name on the envelope.

If their birthdays are coming up send a card, or just "thinking of you" cards or a postcard even. Nothing so big it would require them to write a thank you card, nothing that asks questions, just something that is only for that kid.
posted by buildmyworld at 3:07 PM on July 14, 2017

The work of dying is often insular and focused.

Truth. My mom is in hospice care right now. She was a private person and that has, mostly, persisted. She barely wants to be around us (which is FINE) and doesn't have a lot of time for other people especially people who have issues to work out. It sounds like you are trying hard to be respectful. I agree that a card and some fond remembrances are a great idea for Sarah. A letter outlining that you understand how hard this is would be appropriate for her mom.

Things people have done that have been helpful

- sending cards & photos (I love them, as a caregiver here, esp if they are ones I have not seen)
- asking us what would be helpful for my mom but also for us
- talking to my mom for short periods on the phone often telling stories of fond memories from their shared pasts
- HELPING with the work of helping someone dying (errands, logistical shit, helping us find space)

Things that are less helpful

- visiting, especially surprise visits
- opinions about basically anything having to do with death or dying or her choices
- flowers (we are set for now)
- food (again, set for now)

When my father died, there are some people whose kindness during that time really cemented my friendship with them, it is a good time to form bonds with living people (Sarah's kids, I like the postcard idea) for later as well as caring about Sarah now.
posted by jessamyn at 4:15 PM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree with sending cards and letters - To everyone involved. My dad died last year and people sent cards to him while in hospice and to my mom. Aside from a couple coworkers I personally did not receive a card from any of my relatives or my dad's friends. I can't tell you how much one would have meant.... so yes do reach out to let them all know how Sarah has been a positive person in your life. Any memories of her or her family. Anything....but now is not the time to build in person relationships.
posted by ChristineSings at 6:45 PM on July 14, 2017

I second the idea of, in your card or letter, sharing your memories of her, as specifically as you can. This will not only mean something to her, but to her family when they read it. It meant so much to me when my grandpa died to see people I didn't know telling stories about him, that I would never have heard if they hadn't shared them. It doesn't have to be significant, just "I remember being at my sister's graduation and you were wearing a blue dress and bought me a soda."
posted by emjaybee at 6:46 PM on July 14, 2017

There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love (amazon link) is a book that you might find helpful for this sort of situation. (answer: what everyone else is saying!)
posted by JBD at 1:39 PM on July 15, 2017

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