Dealing with the guilt of not being there
December 27, 2017 10:21 AM   Subscribe

My father ended up in hospital on Christmas eve after suffering from seizures and becoming confused and disoriented. He's still there but seems to be recovering, we have been told he hasn't had a stroke and he's being tested for meningitis. I live overseas and have decided not to rush back home to be with him right now but I need help knowing whether this is the right decision and dealing with the guilt.

My sister is there as she and my dad live in the same city. My uncle is also there as he flew in from one state away. My dad has a ton of friends who are also there, and he's in a top teaching hospital getting great care. When he was first admitted he didn't know what year it was and thought Kennedy was the president. Now he is fully oriented but still a little confused, his speech is slow and he's having a little trouble finding the right words. Physically he's very weak but he is sitting up in a chair for the first time today. He's in the ICU but being moved to a regular ward today. He is 71 years old.

I have tickets to visit him in one month which I bought back in October. When I found out he was in hospital I went online and looked for tickets to fly over immediately. The prices were astronomical - well over twice what I usually pay and the dates I could get even at those prices would mean missing about two weeks of work. It would also mean flying out without informing my boss as he is on holiday himself right now. I think he would be ok with that and I do have the leave but it's definitely a consideration as I need my job. My dad and I are very close and I want to be there so badly but on the other hand I might just get in the way if there.

My sister understands and says my dad wouldn't want me to do anything crazy. I talked to my dad very briefly on the phone (he was too tired to speak longer) and I told him I love him and would be visiting in a month. He said "oh GOOD" and sounded really happy.

The problem is my uncle. My uncle has always tried to make me feel guilty for living overseas away from family (which doesn't even make sense because I live in the same country as my mother - not that I'm required to live near family but even if I were it would be impossible for me to live near both parents). Now he is saying things like "if it were you in this position your dad would fly right over" and that he is with my dad because that is what families are supposed to do. It's possible he isn't trying to make be feel guilty and is just obtuse and I'm being overly sensitive. But I had guessed before speaking to him that he would lay on the guilt trip and it feels like that's what he's doing.

Normally in a situation like this I'd talk it over with my dad and he would help me feel better :-(. I also don't want to burden my sister with my feelings as she has enough to deal with right now. My husband is trying but isnt great about talking about family stuff and feelings. So I turn to you. How do I either accept that I've chosen not to be there right now or else do I get on the plane and go despite the consequences? Any other advice you can give me? I am trying to do what I can from a distance - coordinating with his friends, supporting my sister, and offering to order things to be sent to him or to my sister and to deal with anything else they want me to do. Thank you.
posted by hazyjane to Human Relations (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have this internet stranger’s approval that you’ve made the right call. Feel free to tell your uncle to back off.

As for dealing with your own guilt/feelings — love isn’t about proximity.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:28 AM on December 27, 2017 [17 favorites]

I'm in an eerily similar situation right now, so everything I'm saying to you, I've already practiced on me. Your father is unlikely to be completely better in a month. But in a month, your sister maybe feeling worn out and need some relief. You'll be there just in time to provide her some relief, and help your father, too. Friends can be great for the first few weeks of an illness, but often times if things are long-term, they start dropping off. Again, you'll be there in time to take up the workload, when others are flagging. If he were on his deathbed I'd say of course get there now. But you've got to look at this as a marathon, not a sprint.
posted by greermahoney at 10:32 AM on December 27, 2017 [34 favorites]

So, I lived in Europe when my mother fell ill (several times). And she is, for me, the parent whose advice I always sought. She was generally able to still help me make these kinds of calls, and would generally advise me to keep my planned flight if it was within 6 weeks (as it happened, it was in all instances).

Sharing this in the hope that it will help you more than frighten you: my mother was eventually diagnosed with a terminal illness, and given 4-6 months. I scheduled flights home and worked remotely from the US for 10 days out of the first 3 months of that diagnosis. When it came down to it and I had a flight planned for several weeks hence but her condition seemed to be progressing rapidly, I asked Dad to ask her what I should do. She - a very retiring, selfless, quiet woman - said loudly and clearly, "TELL PAMELA - COME. NOW." So, I say this to say - I truly believe that your father's seeming reaction of pleasure that you are coming in one month is a candid and true reflection of his wish for you - to come in a month, when your other family members will need a bit of respite and when he will be feeling a bit better - this also gives him something to look forward to, rather than feeling that everyone is rushing to his bedside.

As greermahoney says, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Your father is in good hands.
posted by pammeke at 10:36 AM on December 27, 2017 [17 favorites]

Oh, and as my own father said at the time, "Being here gives an illusion of control. You being here doesn't materially influence your mother's health. Be there, call her, listen to her, and visit when you can." I often go back to that, even now living a mere 90 minutes' drive south of my aging father - being there gives an illusion of control. Whether a 6-hour flight or 90-minute drive or a simple walk across the room away, all I can do is my best.
posted by pammeke at 10:40 AM on December 27, 2017 [11 favorites]

Wait and fly out when you were supposed to, in a month.

Basically, your sister is going to be wiped out in a month. She will need you to take over then. One piece of advice: if she's not already doing so, have her write down everything the doctors/nurses say and do. It's so helpful to be able to refer to the notes later on, and when it's written down, you don't have seven different opinions on "what did that one doctor say that one day?"

Hang in there.
posted by cooker girl at 10:45 AM on December 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

If your father did not have two other immediate relatives with him who seem to have gotten him the appropriate care, or if he truly seemed at great risk of death, I would say you should go now. But your father is well-attended and it sounds like he's recovering. There is not much you can contribute at this particular moment. Go in a month and spell your sister, who will be exhausted.
posted by praemunire at 10:54 AM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree with all the other comments, but I'll just say that if his health situation were to change - any boss who would feel that you were behaving irresponsibly by rushing to your father's hospital bedside isn’t the sort of boss you'd want to work for over the longer term. You're probably more valuable than you feel confident admitting....and from the sounds of your uncle, I wonder if there's a family dynamic of "behaving" well that you're extending that to your workplace?
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:54 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your dad could have a UTI -I know from the past year that they can present alarmingly in 70 something dads.

I'm a bit in the place of your sister - I live in the same city as our parents and my dad has been having, basically, an ongoing acute health crisis since August 2016. My sister lives in another state, and she works full-time in a job she needs and has a cat. Meaning she can't just drop everything instantly to fly here. There's only so much money for tickets and time off work and patience from friends for cat-sitting.

As her sister, I have no resentment for this. I know she comes when she can. I know how hard it is for her *to not* be here. I appreciate when she does come, because I know she's stretching her own resources to do so.

I only asked her for one thing, which was to talk to our mom a bit more on the phone. Both my sister and I prefer our dad, and our mom is difficult. That's how my sister can help me from afar - spread the burden of listening to mom some.

If your sister is reasonable and you guys have a good relationship, she understands. Your uncle is not helping and honestly, can just get out of the way.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:57 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice above about helping relieve your sister in a few weeks, and provide some company for your dad down the road. I spent a month in the hospital this summer and ended up being thankful that my best friend didn't drop everything and come cross-country right away. She came six weeks after I went home, when everyone else had resumed their lives and I was craving company. (In the meantime, she sent daily texts, frequent emails, and drawings from her kids, all of which I so appreciated.)

You might also just want to give your boss a vague heads up that your dad's having some health issues and you're looking forward to seeing him in a few weeks. While bonobothegreat is absolutely right about not wanting to work for a boss that wouldn't let you leave if the situation arose, it can't hurt to introduce the possibility to your boss that an elderly parent may need an immediate visit.
posted by writermcwriterson at 11:08 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

The best thing to do is be prepared to stay longer than you planned to, when you do visit him. If there is any possible way to get pre-approval for a potential leave of absence or for remote work for a few months, it would be better to spend the next month putting that in place than to leave right away. If he still needs home assistance or nursing care by the time you get there, or if tests reveal something very bad, you will want more than two weeks.

but you aren't doing anything wrong by waiting a month, given your situation. he's not alone, you're not his only child. See if he'll give permission for the hospital staff to give you direct updates; if he authorizes them to give you medical information you don't have to worry about bothering your sister or dealing with your uncle when you want to know how he's doing. Call him as often as he's receptive to; tell your sister she can call you to talk whenever she wants. there's nothing else to do or to feel guilty about.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have made the same call you did (my dad later told me he would've felt bad if I had've spent thousands of dollars to visit him in the hospital for a few days) - especially if your dad is coming out of the ICU, he's likely stable. Other than the loneliness of sitting in a hospital (which is sounds like he's able to deal with due to many friends and family close) there's nothing that being there in person right now vs. a month from now will do. Talk to your sister (not to get her blessing, but to support her too) and ask if there's anything you can do until you get home. Things like wills, bills, etc. often need tending to and can be taken care of remotely.

If anything, if this is an extended stay or he'll require some home care when he gets out of the hospital, having a fresh mind and body a month from now will probably be really handy to everyone around him.

Regarding your uncle - he's being an asshole, perhaps driven by stress, but an asshole nonetheless. Your relationship and obligations to your father are between you and him and are not subject to the approval of a third party. In my own family, I've noticed often the men spend a lot of time trying to be the biggest hero and part of their strategy is to point out the various failings of others as a way to get themselves on a moral pedestal. It's toxic masculine bullshit and I don't put up with it myself.
posted by notorious medium at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2017

One of the many things I found difficult when my dad was very ill was the constant second guessing from everyone else about where I should be. When I was at work people would why I wasn't with him (kindly meant, in the sense of "look don't worry about work when you're relative is seriously ill") and when I was with him he would worry about me getting in trouble because of missing too much work. Fortunately for me the distance was not so great so I could go back and forth between Dad and work regularly which was helpful.

Everyone questioning my choices meant well but all you can ever do is use your best judgement. Serious illness can be a marathon and it's not always realistic to instantly drop the whole of the rest of your life. You know that your Dad is getting the healthcare he needs and has your sister (and uncle) as emotional support. You know he knows you love him and have plans to be there in person soon. Other people are right that in a month your sister is likely to need to be tagged out and you may be needed more at that stage.

Use your judgement, keep in on making sure your dad knows you love him and keeping yourself up to date so that if things do start to change fast you know to get yourself on an earlier flight. Take no notice of your uncle, it sounds like he's using an already terrible and stressful time to promote his own agenda which is the opposite of helpful.
posted by *becca* at 11:40 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just want to say, your absence is probably much harder for you than it is for your father. I say that not to diminish how important you are to your dad, but to point out that while you are of course thinking of him non-stop, he is busy getting well and is even too tired to talk on the phone. He's got a lot going on.

As for your uncle, he's kinda rude. Don't feel obligated to his idea of family.
posted by amodelcitizen at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

People have weird ways of dealing with stress, and your uncle's way of dealing with it is to use it as a wedge (apparently the same wedge he's used before). I can't really help with the interpersonal aspect of that, and I'm sorry it's happening to you. You might want to talk to a therapist about it.

As for your travel schedule: here's another vote from an internet stranger that you stick to it! My sister lives overseas, and I live about four hours of plane travel away from our parents. A few years ago my dad got his hearing checked and his ENT referred him for an MRI because the results were unusual. The MRI technician took one preliminary look at the result and dad was quickly referred to his primary care doctor, and then to a neurosurgeon for what dad thought was just a consultation. At that "consultation," however, the neurosurgeon said "you're scheduled for surgery tomorrow to remove a tumor," and I bought a same-day plane ticket for the first (and hopefully only) time in my life since I was the one who could get there at all on that notice.

I was there for almost a month, and my sister arrived (from overseas) toward the end of it. Between the two of us we covered most of his first round of postsurgical treatment (chemotherapy and radiation treatments), and then we both traded off over the next year as finances and schedules allowed. Dad was happy to see both of us when we could be there. Whichever one of us was there tried to take notes and ask the doctors all the questions my parents weren't asking and keep the other informed via email, chat, and phone calls. It really did work out for the best that we weren't both there at the same time.

If you can do a video call (FaceTime or Skype or whatever equivalent works for you) that might be worthwhile. At my dad's hospital the wifi was pretty bad but he still appreciated seeing my sister and the kids when he was recovering from his first surgery.

Stick to your plan unless he takes a turn for the worse.
posted by fedward at 11:51 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't possibly speak to your situation. I'm not sure anyone can.

I can, however, say that I visited my dad in late stages of cancer, and he died not long after my visit. I probably did have time to jump back on a plane and get there in time. But I didn't, and I don't beat myself up over it. Like, at all.

I don't conceive of life as a series of "important moments". I'm not the amalgam of my accumulated plot points. I don't dramatize stuff.

I knew he was with his second wife, and his local friends. I know my phone call helped, I know he knew I cared. Nobody asked/expected me to be there (not that I was deliberately excluded). I was not "summoned". I knew who he was, he knew who I am, and I couldn't imagine either of us had anything we needed to say (at least that needed to be said in person).

However, most people DO dramatize their life's plot points. So if you think you'll beat yourself up for not being there at THAT IMPORTANT TIME, go do the mad dash. But here's the thing: it'll just be your dad, just like always (only sicker). It's not Special Death Dad with Enhanced Significance. It's not a movie. Just the same Dad, going through more of his Dad life.

If you're not pulled to be there, and you don't suspect you'll endlessly dramatize it, making yourself miserable for years, and you don't believe you have anything to say or add or help with, or any unique means of offering comfort, I'd heed your hesitant instincts.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:23 PM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

PS: I WILL be there with my mother in the end, if at all possible. I know my two sisters irritate her, that they'll be noisy and needy. And I know that I can guide her to open up and accept (which, to my understanding as a lifelong meditator, is what death's about). I'll be uniquely needed, so I'll be there. But that's about her, not me.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:32 PM on December 27, 2017

I will do everything I can to be there at the end for my dad (I understand that isn't the right or necessary choice for everyone but for me and my dad I think it is). But i really don't think he's dying right now. He's getting better each day and hasn't had any more seizures since Christmas eve. I think he's on an upward trajectory. If god forbid he starts to go downhill I will drop everything and spend any amount to be there.

Thank you so much to everyone who has answered. I do think I know deep down I'm doing the right thing but I needed to hear it and get that reassurance. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. The guilt is just crushing, you know?
posted by hazyjane at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

guilt's tough. As some wise guy once said to me, "Guilt's easy to avoid -- just don't do that thing that you'll end up feeling guilty about." To which I'd add, good luck with that.

I'm currently in rather the opposite position from you. My mom's getting old. I've become her at-home caregiver. I have siblings, all of whom I wish could find a little more time to spend with her, and all of whom I know are working through various degrees of guilt in this regard. But one thing I do not do is consciously use the "g" word, or in any other way lay any kind of guilt trip on them. Things are stressful enough for all of us, and that would just poison things.

Which gets us to your uncle. I'm with many others in this thread who think the best thing to do is ignore him as best you can, or if needs be, tell him to back the f*** off. He's in the wrong here, laying his impression of what constitutes correct behavior on you. It may be legitimately coming from his own stress and grief, but it's still landing very wrong. It's not helping.
posted by philip-random at 12:57 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

As someone who's dad had seizures that led to stroke-like symptoms, I felt really guilty every time I had to leave him to fly home. But like your dad, he'd sound really pleased at the idea of my next trip, and so I told myself it gave him something to look forward to in order to help assuage my guilt.

You're doing the best you can, and he knows you're a good kid. Save the money and vacation for maybe another visit down the road, that may be the best gift you can give him.
posted by ldthomps at 2:21 PM on December 27, 2017

I'm so sorry you're going through this. It's scary to have family members get sick when you're far away, and I totally understand why you would feel bad about not being there.

Is there any way you can Skype or Facetime with your dad? Seeing him might make you feel better.
posted by basalganglia at 2:28 PM on December 27, 2017

Have you asked your dad directly what HE wants? " Do you want me to come now?" is a yes or no ?.
posted by brujita at 5:34 PM on December 27, 2017

My 75-year-old father spent a week in the hospital in early November. I dealt with this similar dilemma to go or not to go. My dad's condition was quite worrisome initially but improved relatively quickly, and I decided not to go home immediately, but instead to schedule a trip over Christmas that I hadn't been planning (so, about a month and a half later). This has turned out to be perfect. My mom and dad were able to concentrate on dad during and immediately after his hospitalization--he was tired and needed rest, and post-discharge had to deal with pharmacist and doctor stuff that he hasn't asked me to be involved in yet. Everything had settled down by the time I came to visit, and we have been able to actually spend time together and enjoy each other's company. I have also appreciated seeing him NOW, so I can get a sense of his new baseline health after recovery from the event in November. Some things have changed, and I am happy to have had a first-hand look at how he's doing; I feel more in the loop, I think, than I would have if I'd parachuted in and out during his hospitalization.

All of this to say, I think you are making the right decision. Either you can take over from your sister, or even if things have resolved more and there is less work to be done, there is value in visiting after things have settled back into a more normal situation.

I also felt guilty while my dad was in hospital and it helped me to call and check in every day (usually a five-ten minute conversation, it was also reassuring to hear his voice), and also to let my manager and boss know what was happening and that it was possible I might need to leave quickly. I felt ready to take off for home immediately if necessary, and that was very comforting.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:47 PM on December 27, 2017

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