Desire to apologize: is it to make them or myself feel better?
March 1, 2019 7:11 AM   Subscribe

When I was 23, my now husband's niece was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, my husband and I were in a serious five-year relationship and I considered his family as my family. Our niece, unfortunately, died after battling cancer for almost two years. Looking back, I feel like I was not as present as I should have been during this difficult moment. I would like to express that to my sister-in-law but wonder if this would just be more hurtful than helpful. Details inside.

My husband and I have been struggling with infertility for three years now. I do not compare this to losing a child to cancer, but this has certainly given me perspective on what true support from loved ones means.

My niece died in August 2014. My husband and I formerly lived about 130 kilometers (80 miles) away from my brother-in-law but moved about 10 km (6 miles) away a month before her death. Since then, I have become a lot closer to my brother-in-law and his partner. We see each other often, sometimes several times a month. I text and hang out regularly one-on-one with my brother-in-law, who I consider a friend. I get along with his partner, but we never hang out one-on-one.

Infertility has made me emotional so I might not be thinking through this clearly. I am now in active treatment, and injecting myself with hormones has obviously not helped my state of mind. I keep feeling reoccurring guilt about not checking in as often as I should have with my sister-in-law during my niece's treatment. I realize now that I should have been the one making that effort. I was scared of saying the wrong thing, but being there for her should have been my top priority. She would call me and reach out, and I had no clue what to do or what to say. I feel terrible about this.

I've considered asking her over for coffee and telling her this, but I would not want this to turn into an obligation for her to make me feel better about what happened to her and her child. Saying something along the lines of, "I want to apologize for not being as present as I could have been during niece's treatment. I realize now that I could have given you more support and I regret not doing that. We're family and know that I will always be there for you if you need it, no matter the circumstances."

Perhaps I am just hormonal and should write this all out in a letter and then burn it.

My question: is making such an apology appropriate?

And yes, I am considering therapy for processing my infertility diagnosis.
posted by Blissful to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Don't do it. Well, you can certainly write the letter and then burn it, and you can certainly see a therapist to help deal with your own feelings, but there's no universe where that apology is going to help your sister-in-law. All it can do at this point is make her re-live what was probably the worst part of her life. Making her feel worse to make you feel better is not a thing you want to do.

What you *can* do, besides working on your own stuff, is be there for her *now*. She's still grieving, and will likely be grieving for the rest of her life - sometimes more and sometimes less, but it will always be a part of her - so that is something where it's appropriate for you to be present and empathetic.
posted by Mogur at 7:26 AM on March 1, 2019 [40 favorites]

I know a lot of people here will tell you not to do it, but I think it's the right thing to do. She may very well be carrying around hurt about this, and hearing you acknowledge it -- while, yes, probably also bringing back the terrible memory of the time -- could also relieve that burden.

Just don't, you know, ask her for forgiveness or otherwise make it burdensome on her. And, agree on preview with the below -- be there for her now if she wants to talk about her daughter.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:27 AM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

First, I'm sorry you're having such a rough time right now yourself. I'm glad you're so thoughtful and reflective, but I'm sorry that the reflection is also now adding to your hurt.

I don't think you need -- or should -- apologize to your sister-in-law. Perhaps you felt your support was lacking but chances are that she felt it was adequate or even ideal! People deal with grief in different ways and she may have been so grateful that you weren't pestering her, that she could reach out to you for a welcome distraction! Just because people don't have the "right" words to say doesn't mean that people think you don't care.

Additionally, it wasn't just the two of you: your brother-in-law was the main contact person for his sister and she could have expressed her needs through him. However, it doesn't she felt you were lacking at all: what has he said about this? I'd start by discussing this with your husband, although I'm sure you already have. The MetaFilter thread on emotional labor is worth a read if you haven't seen it yet and are up for it.

By all means, reach out to her! But make it about her and her daughter. She thinks of her daughter constantly and misses her every day but few people ask her about your niece like they used to. You can now become that person who she can lean on, should she wish, and that you wished you were back then. Tell her that you've been thinking about your niece and how you miss her and can only imagine how she's feeling as her mom. Tell her you'd love to listen or talk about your niece should she want to, that you're always available! If she's not up for it, that's understandable but you opened the door. If you guys aren't already talking about this frequently or even occasionally, I might first send the message via email or snail mail card so she has time and space to think about her reaction.

Again, I think you did the right thing for her before and, with more life experience, you can also do the right thing for you and her now!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:27 AM on March 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

One thing about losing a family member and especially about losing a child is that people are so overwhelmed with the idea that they don't know what to say, or the right thing to say, is that they simply don't say anything and never talk about the deceased person. Which only adds to the grief, because sometimes you want to talk about the loss, but also sometimes you want to mention good memories but then your audience starts to feel awkward.

I think it would be a kindness to tell your family exactly what you wrote here, but without any of the qualifiers about your own life or current circumstances. You can just say "I feel like I wasn't present enough and I want to apologize to you for that." Maybe have a pleasant memory of your niece in the back of your mind to share if the conversation goes that way. But otherwise be prepared to just listen.

Also, early 20's is still a somewhat selfish period in life, particularly if you don't have children yourself. Please don't beat yourself up for this any longer. Just use it as a learning experience to be more present with those you love from today forward.
posted by vignettist at 7:31 AM on March 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

I say do it, but don't make it a big deal. No coffee date or long drawn out speech.

I would just mention in passing one day, or as a wind-up to an email or whatever, something to the effect of that now that you're going through what you are going through, you now more fully appreciate the pain of loss and the value of support and that if your sister in law ever felt that you weren't present enough that you are sorry for that and just didn't know any better. Then end it at that.
posted by WinterSolstice at 7:34 AM on March 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

I’d say something in person although I wouldn’t do it in public. Do it in private and don’t reference your infertility unless she asks.

You never ever ever forget about losing a child. That’s not the worry. You just don’t want to put her in a place where she is focused on it when she doesn’t have the time or space she needs to process it.

Maybe the best thing to do is ask brother-in-law or talk to him about it since you’re closer.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:35 AM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've been through a lot in the last few years and felt abandoned or unsupported by a couple of important people in my life, and I would welcome this kind of thing from them. In fact, I have done this myself--my cousin had breast cancer and I wasn't there for her, and later apologized. I don't think she was really expecting anything from me in the first place, because we weren't close, but talking to her openly about it brought us closer. Keep it simple and sincere; no need to explain at length or turn it into an event. Leave your present situation out of it. I think just a phone call would be fine.
posted by HotToddy at 7:37 AM on March 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Whether or not it's the right thing to do, I wouldn't do it now.
Right now your remorse comes from a place of vulnerability and neediness. You risk making it about you and reopening the wound without any real benefit to her.

If you can find a safe space to process your own grief I'd start there. Try to be a good friend to your SIL and if she ever opens up about her feelings you can say it then.
posted by M. at 7:56 AM on March 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

If you do, keep it simple. Perhaps you could do this on the anniversary of your niece's death just tell her parents that you miss her too and you wish you'd known how to give them more support back when she was sick. And stop there. Don't push them into having to relive a horrendously painful part of their lives.

Just keep showing them that you care about them.
posted by mareli at 8:05 AM on March 1, 2019 [16 favorites]

If you decide to say something, don't mention it in the context of your infertility. It could come off as a way of saying "now that i need more support --hint, hint -- ..." If you need more support that's entirely reasonable, and it's reasonable for you to ask for it, but make it a separate conversation and don't say anything that could tie the two issues together.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:05 AM on March 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Considering that you two aren't close enough to hang out one on one at this stage in your relationship, I think inviting her out alone and using that first outing to apologize may not land like you'd hope.

I'd recommend working on building a closer relationship with her and seeing how it evolves with time. Be there for her now, in the present, and see if a moment opens up that clarifies this situation for you - either a place where giving an apology feels appropriate, or the knowing that she does not perceive the situation the same way you do.
posted by amycup at 8:13 AM on March 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Right now you seem a bit overwrought. I would wait, just so that you don't accidentally make it more about your own feelings because they're so strong. If the family is not Jewish, send the mom flowers in August with a very simple note like "Thinking of you and [Jane] this month." Let her decide how she wants to engage with that. If you end up having a conversation and it seems appropriate in the moment, you can, again very simply, express the sentiment you've shared here. People tend to forget after a year or two, but anniversaries can be painful for the bereaved for many years, so a modest remembrance will probably be appreciated whether or not she wants to talk to you about it.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're friendly now, but not close. Her profound loss has existed throughout the time you've known her, and your difficult struggle has gone on for some time already ....... and neither of those things have brought you close up to this point.

It would be one thing to acknowledge that you dropped the ball when a loved one needed you. But in this case, you're essentially feeling guilty for not having had a past close relationship with someone who wasn't relying on you then and isn't in your inner circle now.

You don't have to be intimately close with everyone in your extended family. But if that's what you're seeking, start today with today, not yesterday.* Your sister-in-law lives with her loss every day. If you want to be a support to her, be a support to her now. The grief of losing a child doesn't end, ever.

*And your infertility should not appear in the same conversation - or even different conversations on the same day - as her grief.
posted by headnsouth at 8:41 AM on March 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Apologies can be good for both parties.

Personally, I would keep it on the back burner and wait for what feels like a natural, organic moment to bring it up. I would not do the whole inviting her over for the express purpose of talking about it thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:03 AM on March 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

This is a rare situation where passing along the apology indirectly might make it more appropriate, not less, in that it would be more clearly not about making you feel better. Could your husband bring this up more naturally with his brother sometime? He could say that you both still think of your niece and their loss often; that looking back, he wishes you'd both offered more support through that time; and that in particular that you wish you'd been able to do more for your sister-in-law. And then your sister-in-law can hear this in private from her partner, who knows her best and can decide how to bring it up, without having to navigate your feelings. (Yes, I am suggesting that the men should do all the emotional labor on this one.)
posted by cogitron at 9:49 AM on March 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think it’s a good idea to apologize eventually.

I have cancer. Like most cancer patients, I have a few people in my life who disappeared when I was diagnosed. If they wanted to apologize, that would be great, but only if it were accompanied by actually sticking around. An apology is worthwhile if it’s accompanied by change, and your sister-in-law will be dealing with this the rest of her life. She may need someone to talk to again and again.

Similarly, a friend was really shitty when my brother died young. We eventually became estranged. If she wanted to do a hit and run apology, I don’t think I’d be interested. But if she wanted to apologize and reestablish our relationship and not be a jerk in the future, I would be.

Become friends with your sister-in-law. Ask her out for coffee. Don’t bring up her daughter unless she does. Then ask her out again. After you’ve established a real relationship with her, apologize. Then be there for her.
posted by FencingGal at 10:47 AM on March 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you should do it. I received an apology several years later from a family member who distanced herself from me during a time of need and it made me feel a lot better about where we were currently. I never felt like I could ask about it even though I wanted to know why she didn't reach out. She mentioned it in a way that wasn't direct but rather in a "I'm sorry I haven't always been there for you as much as you deserved. Sometimes I felt too weak to offer you my support. I'm glad we are closer than we used to be".
posted by waving at 11:07 AM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Having lost a child I agree with FencingGal. Become friends if you can. If she talks about her daughter, listen. Don't bring it up out of no where, that can be jarring.
I will note that for myself, the people that still remember and recognize my sons birthday and death day are some of the people I prize the most. In my case it's been many many years and I have two lovely daughters but still those days matter to me.
posted by ReiFlinx at 11:19 AM on March 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

I've talked to a few friends and family members who have lost children. My perspective is that many people are uncomfortable talking to them about their kids, and they appreciate it when people can talk about their kids openly. I think these folks sometimes feel like people don't want to hear about their kids who died, so being someone who can say the names of those children normally and naturally is something they value. I also know one family member carries a lot of hurt about how some people behaved following her baby's death.

So, I can't speak as someone who has experienced this kind of loss. But reaching out to people about a loss never seems like a bad thing, even if it's down the road. Other people might be more comfortable pretending the grief has gone, but I don't think a parent ever stops grieving for a child who died.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:20 AM on March 1, 2019

There is a Talmudic saying that a person who meets a mourner after a year and offers extensive words of consolation is like a doctor who says "come, let me break your leg again, so that I can show how effective my treatment is". If you missed the window the window is missed, and you shouldn't drag her back to that time in order to rehash what you wish you had done.

The window of *now*, however, is still open, and you do have the opportunity to reach out now - I love the idea of flowers or similar to say you are thinking of her daughter and family at this time. The difference in perspective is that you should focus not on assuaging your guilt or trying to redo the past, but on moving forward in a way that's educated by your new understanding. An apology may be appropriate, or not, but a lot depends on the spirit the apology is offered in and on your focus in giving it.
posted by Lady Li at 11:32 AM on March 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Is there any reason to believe that she may be holding ill will towards you over this? Do you have the kind of relationship with her where she would be able to be fully open and honest with you and tell you if she was? If not, then burdening her with your guilt and placing her in a position to feel obligated to reassure you and support you instead seems very counter productive to your motive. Unless you weren't there for her deliberately, selfishly or maliciously, then I do think(or rather, hope) that most people understand everyone deals with loss in different ways, everyone is also fighting their own battles, and everyone is doing the best that they can any given time. If you are now able to be there for her now, and she needs it now, then do so. It's even possible that her supports who were there for her during the crisis have burnt out a bit or tapered off and you may be able to offer her something now of yourself that would help her just as much.
posted by OnefortheLast at 11:41 AM on March 1, 2019

send the mom flowers in August with a very simple note

This is what I would do, as well, but I would address the flowers to both mom and dad. Dads grieve too and it’s not fair to exclude him from your otherwise lovely gesture.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:58 AM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I wanted to clarify some things:

My niece does naturally comes up in conversation (by my sister-in-law and by me), though not often. She is in several photos on the mantel in our appartment, including an enlarged one displayed in a prominent position (this same photo is also in a prominent position in my brother-in-law's and sister-in-law's house). I send a text to my sister-in-law on niece's birthday each year (she has mentioned that she prefers celebrating her birthday rather than anniversary of her death). I have not been visiting her grave and leaving flowers as often as I used to though. I will do better about that.

My concern is not that my sister-in-law feels like I am not keeping my niece's memory alive. It is that I did not provide enough active support during treatment and the direct aftermath and that is what I feel I should apologize for.

Thank you for the answers so far. It gives me so much to think about. I love my brother-in-law and sister-in-law very much (and loved my niece). I do not want to make this about me. I just want to do right by them and have been thinking about this a lot lately.
posted by Blissful at 12:11 PM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

My concern is not that my sister-in-law feels like I am not keeping my niece's memory alive.

My suggestion was primarily aimed at trying to create a natural context to bring up the topic (rather than making a separate Occasion of it). If you do speak about her from time to time, I would try to wait until it felt like a natural turn in one of those conversations.
posted by praemunire at 12:38 PM on March 1, 2019

From your follow up I think you are doing everything you can/should and there is no need to apologize unless you know she is upset.

It sounds like you are closer now than you were then and are thoughtful and supportive. Also, you were 23, not married into the family, and living an hour away.

When I read the first part of your question I thought you had done something rude, but honestly I do not think you are at fault. No one knows what to do in this circumstance and I am sure your thoughtfulness since then is appreciated.

Her daughter's death is not about you and I'm almost positive she would not hold a grudge for you not knowing what to say. No one knows what to say.

The best thing you can do is continue to be supportive in remember your in-laws in the way they prefer. It sounds like you are doing everything right. This is not something to worry about!
posted by elvissa at 1:38 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have not been visiting her grave and leaving flowers as often as I used to though. I will do better about that.

You can also ask your sister-in-law how they would like their niece's memory to be honored. With my family member, we had a conversation specifically about this, and they wanted an annual donation to a specific charity as a way of remembering their son. Which is to say: since you are doing this for the living, ask the living what they would like you to do.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:04 PM on March 1, 2019

My concern is... that I did not provide enough active support during treatment and the direct aftermath and that is what I feel I should apologize for.

I think it would help to clarify if your concern is a valid one that she has expressed towards you, or whether it is one of your own imaginings.
If it is the former, then the best course of action would be to ask her directly how she feels amends could be made. Not all people want or find helpful apologies or expressions of remorse. If you feel you want to apologize simply to alievate your own feelings, then you may also come to regret that later on by making it about you, if it is not well received.
If it is the latter, then personal therapy may be more helpful than offloading your negative feelings about the past onto an unsuspecting and unprepared bystander.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:23 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

To add to my first response - seeing that she is the sister of your brother in law (so a bit more distant than eg your husband's sister would be):

If you do not have a close relationship with her right now, and you want to, I'd start with just getting to know her better. She is more than her grief and might not want her relationship with you to be all or mostly about grief or processing feelings.
posted by M. at 12:12 AM on March 2, 2019

Taking a step back - you were the 23 year old girlfriend of her brother in law, who lived an hr+ away. Even if you were considered ‚family’ I would still not expect my early twenties wider family members to be a major source of support in that kind of crisis. Especially if I didn’t see them all the time/already had a very close relationship with them. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are many young adults who are a huge source of support in a crisis but l’d not look to that group as main support if my child was critically ill. Perhaps practical/logistical support if they lived close by and I needed somebody to do x but unless they are in my inner circle they are not the person I’d call if I needed a good cry. So whatever guilt you feel - it is unlikely that there was any expectation for you to do more than you did and do now. If you want to deepen the relationship now by all means do that and become the support you want to be going forward.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:04 AM on March 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a hard thing to decide. There are times when it helps to hear that someone wished they had been more sensitive in the past. It can make people feel seen, if they didn't feel seen by you previously, and it can reassure them that they matter to you and you'll try to do better in the future.

But about doing better in the future: you are trying to have a child right now. It may be difficult for her as your child gets older and closer to the age where she lost hers. This, I believe, will take some thinking. It is really not clear how she will react or respond to someone bringing it up. You may have to feel her out a bit. The fact that you are re-visiting how you've treated her in the past is an opportunity for the near future, perhaps. Good luck with all of this!
posted by BibiRose at 10:27 AM on March 2, 2019

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