How to have a heart-to-heart about a heart
September 19, 2019 8:23 AM   Subscribe

This morning my father had an ablation for an AFib condition that I didn't know he had. He doesn't tell us (adult) kids about any health things that crop up until long after they are over. Have you managed to bridge this gap with a stubbornly reticent parent? How?

My 73 yo father's GF called me this morning to tell me he was having a procedure for his AFib that up until 3 hours ago I didn't know he had. He is, of course, in Florida and I am in NJ so I can't swing by the hospital to see what's up. She's telling me this, she said, because he is coming up to visit soon and she doesn't want him to help my brother move.

She also told me not to tell him she told me or else he'd never speak to her again but given this is the 3rd or 4th time they're back together I'm not terribly concerned.

He pulled this in 2015 when he had an embolism and didn't tell my brother and me until 6 weeks later. And that was via email. Email!

During the writing of this question, she texted that he was back in his room and still a little loopy, so that's a sigh of relief.

My questions are not about Dad's health (usually good) or whether it's smart for him to travel (he travels by train) or whether I should bring this up to him and break his GF's "trust" (This is too big a secret for me to keep from him, IMO).

My questions are:
1) Have any of you successfully brought your stubborn, closed-mouth parent to a place where they share their health problems with you?
2) If so, how?
posted by kimberussell to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not only have I not managed to make my parents get over this lifelong habit, but in the last year I've realized I have it, too.

I know you know this, but medical stress and our responses to it are intensely personal. I'm gay, and I liken it to the anxiety around coming out. No one can make you ready before you're ready. I'm also a toxicologist who interacts with people who have serious illnesses on a daily basis. And this year brought me a medical scare that I wasn't prepared for and had extreme difficulty sharing with my closest friends until the treatment was underway. There are so many angles that inform this Weird Thing We Do, and whether make sense or not they are very intensely felt.

I think the burden here is on us as family, caregivers, children, friends of the afflicted. You can air your grievances, just as you can accept whatever your dad ultimately decides is how he wants to face scary health things.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:34 AM on September 19, 2019 [8 favorites]

It took a pretty angry conversation after a pretty big violation to get my emotionally-sensitive and considerate mother to stop hiding things from me (the trigger was her telling me four months late that a cousin of mine had died of reasonably unsurprising causes). I'm not at all sure how I would have gotten through to her if she wasn't naturally inclined to prioritize my feelings of hurt and alienation pretty highly.

If I were in your shoes, I would be having a really blunt conversation instead about wills, advance directives, and medical power of attorney, because you're not necessarily going to get that space when something crops up on the horizon to make them necessary. (Not that you're guaranteed that space anyway! But even less if you aren't likely to hear about a major procedure before the fact.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:52 AM on September 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

First, know that he has a right to keep his health problems a secret. It may not be the best idea for the family, but it is technically his decision.

How do you react when he does tell you something? I think it is important not to give him guff about waiting to tell you or shame him for the way he told you. Email is still telling you. He may want to keep his emotions out of the message and give you both space to process the info before having to react to him. If he has had others freak out on him in the past when he gives them bad personal news, he is probably avoiding the subject until he feels he can't and then reluctantly notifying you. People process their own health issues at different rates.

I think asking him how he is and general questions about what he has been doing may give him space to bring up the issue naturally. Thank him for telling you and say something positive about how you want to know this stuff.
posted by soelo at 8:54 AM on September 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

Has there ever been a big problem in your life that you didn't tell your father about? A physical or mental health issue, problems with relationships, jobs or money? If so, maybe it would be helpful to think about what could have convinced you to share that information with him (and whether it would have been a good idea for him to push you to share it.)
posted by Redstart at 9:08 AM on September 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Your dad sounds very similar to mine. I would frame it as: “it’s completely your right to decide if and how to tell me about your health problems. But if you’re not sharing this stuff with me because you don’t want to worry me, please know that not telling me stuff just makes me worry all the time that you may have a health problem you just haven’t told me about. You’re my dad and just like you worry about me, I worry about you. If it’s for a different reason, like you just want your privacy, that’s ok and I understand. But if it’s just about me worrying, the best way to help me not worry is to be upfront with me.”
posted by sallybrown at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2019 [14 favorites]

1) Have any of you successfully brought your stubborn, closed-mouth parent to a place where they share their health problems with you?

Nope. My dad is in the hospital right now (has been since Monday night) and my sister had to contact his secretary to get this information. He did this ten years ago when he drove himself to the hospital during a heart attack--he called me from the car to say hi and I love you, then told me to get back to my studies and that we'd talk soon. He didn't mention that he was actively in cardiac arrest.

I am frustrated by this but my sister is furious, and I will say that her anger drives a bigger wedge into her relationship with our dad than what would exist from his secrecy alone.

My therapist advised me to deal with my worry by remembering that any of our visits could be our last, and for any reason at all (we could be struck by lightning, poisoned, etc. etc. at any time without warning). Which has been decent advice, because it also helps me not take our time together for granted.
posted by witchen at 9:15 AM on September 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

I would be the Dad in this situation, though, of course, I was previously the son. I think there a deep cultural principle here. Some people aren't going to undermine a carefully crafted image of being strong and in charge. Some people just keep personal matters to themselves.

Having had some recent business with cardiologists and discussions about arrhythmias and the treatment thereof, I suspect he was told the ablation was no big deal and that he would be up and about in a day or two. It's a preventative procedure to prevent stroke, not a fix for a current emergency. So, inside his bubble, there seems less reason to ring alarm bells than "Dad is having a heart operation" would suggest.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:39 AM on September 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Have any of you successfully brought your stubborn, closed-mouth parent to a place where they share their health problems with you?

Honestly, I'm shocked that you think you're entitled to this information. Your parent is an autonomous adult who gets to draw his personal privacy boundaries wherever he wishes. How much information he shares is not an indicator of how much he loves you or values your relationship.

She's telling me this, she said, because he is coming up to visit soon and she doesn't want him to help my brother move. She also told me not to tell him she told me or else he'd never speak to her again but given this is the 3rd or 4th time they're back together I'm not terribly concerned.

Wow. So you want to screw over someone lovingly looking out for your dad's best interests, but you also don't respect his right to run his own dating life so you are going to torpedo his relationship because you don't think it's important?

I wonder who it is you think is going to call you next time. Because it sure as shit won't be her, and you already know it won't be him.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:40 AM on September 19, 2019 [17 favorites]

Yep, I'm with DarlingBri. Language like "He pulled this in 2015..." is very patronizing and entitled. Your father is an adult. He is not required to share health information on your timeline, and there are a million reasons why he didn't tell you about this (hmm, do you have an entitled and controlling reaction whenever he DOES share personal information?).

I gather that this question is coming from a place of concern, but your tone is all wrong. Even in the best case scenario you are unlikely to see a shift in his behavior, and coming at him all guns blazing, "HOW DARE YOU?? I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!!" is really not going to work at all.
posted by Bebo at 9:50 AM on September 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

Nah, kimberussell, I am with you: when one of my parents mentions in passing an event or detail like it's No Big Thang, it really throws me for a loop: I live far away from the whole rest of the family, and already feel the separation. When it's brought home that some of that might be intentional, well...that hurts me.

Are they trying to protect us kids? We are adults, we love them, we want to help. Are they trying to protect us? The shock of a bad outcome will be worse!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:25 AM on September 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I had an angry/hurt conversation about it with my father after he almost died during a scheduled kidney operation that he told me about like maybe a few days beforehand. The content was close to what sallybrown said, though, that I cared about him and worried about him and it was more worrying to me not to know what's going on. He's gotten much better about it since; he'll give me updates about whatever doctors he's seen and what they've said (he has a number of ongoing health issues).

He and I have a fairly good relationship, though. It wasn't an issue of "This isn't your business" so much as "I don't want to worry the kids."
posted by lazuli at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

This article about "stubborn" parents of adult children comes to mind. The Comments section is as interesting as the article, so read through it. When parents' decisions, particularly health decisions, affect childrens' work and personal lives, then being left out of the information loop is a big deal.

Of late, I've spent some time in the waiting rooms of a major hospital. I've been struck by the tenderness of adult children, male and female, with their suits and laptops tenderly accompanying their frail parents. If this is what you envision at some point, then let your parent know that with some notice you'll be up there to help out. If your dad is too taciturn to communicate over the phone or face to face, suggest that he e-mail "just the medical facts" and react to those with grace and coolness so as not to embarrass him. In the end, though, he owns the information.
posted by Elsie at 12:31 PM on September 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, your father is an autonomous adult, but you are his next of kin so I understand you being upset about not knowing about issues such as this until after they've occurred. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense for you to know about this sort of thing beforehand so you can be available for communication from medical authorities should something arise.

I personally would try to frame it in that way and stay out of emotional territory. It takes the power dynamic out of the conversation, and while I realize you probably have emotional reasons for wanting to know about stuff like this, I don't think it's going to help you here. Maybe you can talk to Dad's girlfriend about a way to broach this that she feels comfortable with. You definitely need to be working with her.
posted by queensissy at 12:51 PM on September 19, 2019

It would be helpful for you to realize that an ablation for Afib is not that big a deal. The embolus was likely caused by the Afib, so this is a reasonable medical decision, and does not show evidence of poor judgement. Ablation eliminates the need for warfarin or other blood thinners, which have their own serious risks. Afib ablation permanently restores a normal rhythm, which is a big effing deal. Maybe he doesn't tell his kids because he doesn't want them to hover or interfere, both of which would piss me off if I were in his shoes.

Your dad, as others have noted, is an autonomous adult and has no obligation to share his health information with anyone, including you. He evidently trusts his girlfriend with his health information, and she notified you because she is looking after his health but doesn't want to argue with him about any limitations he may have. I hope you will reconsider your willingness to breach her trust and throw her under the bus, because if that is what you do he might sever his relationship with her, refuse to open up to you, and then be completely alone. Alone is probably not what you want for your father. Contacting you was very brave of her and I urge you to keep her confidence. If you do, she is likely to tell you if he has health problems in the future, and she can urge him to share more with you. If she's gone, that pathway is also gone and your father will probably be very, very angry with you.

If you can keep her confidence and be supportive of your dad but not pushy, maybe asking if he has a living will and if he has designated someone with his healthcare power of attorney will help him to know that you respect his healthcare wishes.
posted by citygirl at 2:31 PM on September 19, 2019 [10 favorites]

I saw Dad last night, 4 days after his procedure. I waited until I could see him in person.

Me: Hey Dad, how're you feeling?
Dad: Good!
Me: How's your heart?
Dad: Heh. Better now. Got the rhythm reset.
Me: And it worked?
Dad: Yep!*
Me: Okay. I'm happy. N called and told me.
Dad: I figured she would.
Me: But I really wish you'd have told us beforehand because learning your dad's having a heart procedure while you're trying to cross the Ben Franklin Parkway on your way to work isn't great. I know you don't want to worry me, but honestly I worry all the time that you're NOT telling me if something is wrong. You can share this stuff with me, I can handle this. And as I get older I'll share my health problems right back at you.
Dad: OK, Kimmer.

Will he? Who knows.

Thank you to all who answered in a helpful way, who read my poorly-written question charitably, and who resisted the urge to fill in blanks that I purposefully left out.

*I know.
posted by kimberussell at 10:05 AM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Obviously I'm late on this, but the reason I don't tell family members (my parents OR children) about my serious health issues is because telling them isn't helpful to me, and I don't want to feel like I have to deal with their emotions surrounding it. Telling them is WORK and when I'm already hurting, I don't want to put more work onto myself. If I did tell them, e-mail would be my preferred method because that reduces the emotional labor for me.
posted by metasarah at 9:39 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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