How can I (and should I) help my friend be part of her sister's death?
March 18, 2020 9:14 AM   Subscribe

My friend's sister is dying very suddenly (a matter of days). There are complicated, weird, indirect family dynamics pushing my friend to stay away from her sister during this time. My instinct is to gently encourage my friend to ohmygod go be with her sister asap. Should I? Can I? How?

The crisis: My friend (let's call her Mary) is in her late 40s. Her sister (call her Sarah) is in her early 40s. Sarah was diagnosed with a rare mutation of a rare cancer in January. Chemo didn't work, immunotherapy didn't work, and we learned yesterday that Sarah only has days left.

The background: Mary's family is a little weird in terms of how ... distant-seeming they can be. If there's such a thing as an avoidant family attachment pattern, theirs is it. However, I also know that Mary and Sarah love each other deeply, truly depend on each other, have been each other's rock during and after their horrible childhood with a severely mentally ill mother and a mostly-absent father who killed himself when they were teenagers. But they're each other's rock in what seems - from the outside - to be a distant way - all laughing and jokes on the surface, not much intimacy or talking about feelings, OVERLY respectful of each others' boundaries, or perceived boundaries, extremely careful not to intrude on one another.

Since her diagnosis, Sarah has shared clinical details with Mary but neither of them have spoken to one another about their fears or worries or even their plans. Par for the course, of course. I said to Mary on the day of the diagnosis that I will drive down with her to Sarah's city, get us an AirBnB or whatever, and entertain myself while Mary visits with Sarah - just name the weekend and we'll go. Mary started crying when I offered this, and she said okay, let's go in a couple of months. Honestly I was kind of WTFing on the inside when Mary said that, because I would have thought she'd want to go over immediately!! But *I* didn't want to intrude on her choices or her process with *my* idea of normal.

I was also WTFing the whole time about

(a) how little communication there seemed to be between the sisters, and how both of them were carefully avoiding talking about the diagnosis or what it means.

(b) the fact that even when Sarah was hospitalized, unconscious, and thus incommunicado for THREE DAYS in February, Sarah's boyfriend didn't even notify Mary or Mary & Sarah's mom (Sarah's only living relatives) to keep them updated, and MARY THOUGHT THIS WAS NORMAL?!?! Even though Mary was going out of her mind with worry, she thought it would be too intrusive for her to text Sarah's boyfriend?!?!?!

Sarah lives with her boyfriend of four years (Jason). They moved in together last year. Jason is definitely a significant other, has been providing all the care for Sarah for the last two months, is reeling and absolutely overwhelmed, distraught, etc. I'm specifying all this so that you all don't think he's "just a boyfriend." But it's also not like they've been together 20 years, kwim?

But Mary is acting like he is, and so is Jason. In fact, it goes much further: Mary is acting like she has no right whatsoever to be at Sarah's side now that Sarah only has a few days to live... and so is Jason.

Yesterday, Jason reached out to Sarah and Mary's mom - first time he has contacted the family after the diagnosis - to let their mom know that Sarah only has a few days left. Mary showed up at my place 20 minutes later (she never comes over just like that, uninvited) and broke down completely. Mary is so undemonstrative and does not express her feelings much at all, and she was in hysterics. There is no doubt that this affects her deeply, I mean, obviously it would!

She stayed with me the rest of the day. I had to encourage her to call Jason and ask for details, and for permission to visit her sister. She thought she wasn't allowed to call because of how much he was dealing with, and she thought she shouldn't ask to go over because that would be intruding on the time Jason had left with Sarah (oh my GOD this is not normal, you guys, right?! I'm not crazy?!). I had to tell her it's okay, she's your sister, you need to see her, you matter too.

She called Jason, and Jason - who was distraught, overwhelmed, not thinking clearly either I'm sure - said Mary can visit but that the doctor said Sarah is only allowed one visitor at a time for 30 minutes. Mary is now taking this to mean she can only see her sister for 30 minutes, and must then return.

It's taking every ounce of self control I have to stop myself from telling her, NO, GIRL, GET IN THE CAR, I'M TAKING YOU THERE AND WE WILL STAY IN TOWN FOR AS LONG AS WE CAN. Like, I don't think Mary has to push Jason aside, but goddamn, I think my friend needs to be with her sister too? It's not an either-or competition between Jason and Mary? Right??

Can I say something like that except much more gently? Mary seems to trust me and she has been both touched and receptive whenever I have suggested that she is allowed to be close to her sister. At the same time, I don't want to manage her life for her/ overstep boundaries/ let MY feelings dictate my response to her.

Advice?
posted by MiraK to Human Relations (19 answers total)
 
Best answer: Tell her and go. But no need to actlike she's doing something wrong. She doesnge know how to act here because her family are weird. Just say "mary, its time to go and see sarah. I'll be over in an hour to pick you up" and go.
posted by fshgrl at 9:24 AM on March 18, 2020 [22 favorites]


Best answer: It's taking every ounce of self control I have to stop myself from telling her, NO, GIRL, GET IN THE CAR, I'M TAKING YOU THERE AND WE WILL STAY IN TOWN FOR AS LONG AS WE CAN. Like, I don't think Mary has to push Jason aside, but goddamn, I think my friend needs to be with her sister too? It's not an either-or competition between Jason and Mary? Right??

Good lord, yes, you are absolutely right here. She and Jason can swap out 30 minute periods. If the situation is as you describe, Mary is probably in shock right now and doesn't seem to be thinking clearly. Honestly, I think you pretty much should just say what you've written here (though maybe more gently, as you said) because she might need a little shepherding.

I wouldn't get into any of the things you've told us about your feelings re: (a), (b), or anything else that you think is 'weird' about the family dynamics, but validating the fact that she has the right to be there, her sister no doubt wants her there, and she can go with you right now would probably be very helpful. You're a good friend.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:27 AM on March 18, 2020 [12 favorites]


Best answer: When my beloved father died, I chose not to go and be with him for the last days. I too had a friend who was completely ready and willing to make it happen, but not going was, to me, a rational choice. My specific concerns from that time are only relevant in that they related in part to infection control in a vulnerable population, which obviously still applies at the moment. I'm not saying that that would mean it's wrong for her to go, not at all, but that some people can be more... detached? about that sort of thing even though it hurts. I was desperately, sickly sad during his last few days, and a large portion of me wanted to go, but I didn't and it was alright. I think my friend still secretly thinks that choice was weird, but they respected it and have never made me feel bad about it. I regret that it wasn't possible to be with him, but not my decision about that impossibility. My situation even included not being informed about a coma until it had gone on for some time and that being treated by everyone involved, including me, as a medical privacy issue, so I'm really feeling their family reality here.

That said, if she truly, completely wants to go and is just feeling blocked by regulations, social or medical, you are correct to support that. My weird family dynamics are not necessarily the same as hers, and ultimately it's the sisters' choice.
posted by teremala at 9:35 AM on March 18, 2020 [7 favorites]


I don't know where you're located, but the coronavirus crisis introduces another dimension. I live somewhere on lockdown and hospital visitors aren't allowed (it sounds like that's not the case where you live, but you definitely don't want to risk the chance of unintentionally bringing the virus into a hospital)...
posted by pinochiette at 9:41 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: To clarify: Sarah is now at home, no longer in the hospital.
posted by MiraK at 9:44 AM on March 18, 2020


Response by poster: fshgrl your script is super helpful, and if anyone has anything to add/modify about that suggestion, please do. I'm trying to get my work stuff/time off organized and then I'll make the call to tell her to get ready.
posted by MiraK at 9:53 AM on March 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I think it would be fine to drive her down. If it were me I'd say "Hi Mary, it's MiraK. Listen, I would love to drive you down today/tonight/tomorrow. I've booked [whatever you can book, if you can] for the night. I'll see you at X time, please be ready."

If she protests just say "I wouldn't want you to get there too late, and I know it's a terrible time, so let me be your travel coordinator. See you at [time.]"

Once you get her there I think it will probably work itself out. And it sounds like she wants to go.

The rest is really not up to you. But pack food, wash your hands, stay away from people.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:57 AM on March 18, 2020 [4 favorites]


Best answer: I should note, if she protests twice then I would support her decision.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:10 AM on March 18, 2020 [7 favorites]


Best answer: Yeah, I think you should be Team Mary here, without trying too hard to solve the larger family issues and just focusing on helping her a) assert her needs b) not talk herself out of needing those things. Absolutely do help her think a little more clearly and less reactionary, like with the 30-minute thing, and nudge her to work out a schedule with everyone else who wants to visit.

I think this is exactly the kind of thing friends do in a crisis. You know your friend, do your best to distinguish between real pushback and fear-avoidance and encourage her to overcome the latter. Help take care of the necessary little logistics like transportation, food and rest.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:11 AM on March 18, 2020 [5 favorites]


As someone from a distant family like the one you're describing, in Sarah's shoes I'd appreciate your good intentions but also I would really want you to respect my right to make my own decisions about what is right for me. What you've been doing - being kind and encouraging and offering gentle pushback against things like "I want to call but don't feel allowed to" - is great. But "I've made the decision for you, I'll show up at 5 pm with a car and we're going" would be too much for me in Sarah's shoes and would feel closer to hurtful boundary-crossing than loving help.

I'd advise sticking to encouraging her to express what she wants and supporting her to make whatever that is happen, but not deciding what that is or should be on her behalf or taking actions she might then feel pressured into going along with.

All of that said - you clearly love your friend and have her interests at heart and I'm sure that whatever you end up doing, she'll feel and appreciate your care and kindness.
posted by Stacey at 10:12 AM on March 18, 2020 [23 favorites]


I think she's overwhelmed and uncertain and looking to you for help in knowing what's appropriate. I wouldn't hold back in gently helping her go get time with her sister. My sympathies!
posted by slidell at 10:38 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Oh that's a great idea to pack food and cleaning supplies. I can meal prep for a few days' worth of food quite easily and bring along wipes & lysol etc. for the stay.

Mary just texted me that Sarah regained consciousness today long enough to ask to see Mary. She was going on about visiting for 30 minutes but I texted back saying, "Pack a bag to stay till the weekend just in case Sarah and Jason need you, and I'll handle the bookings," and Mary sent like three texts in a row thanking me. Jeez. I love this woman, have known her 15 years, and yet I feel like I'm only just learning her!

Thank you all, I'm going to keep your guidance and boundaries suggested in mind. I'm off to prep and pack.
posted by MiraK at 10:49 AM on March 18, 2020 [27 favorites]


I do not think there is any substitute for being there in person, but if that cannot or will not happen, Face Time or Duo or whatever the video calling of choice is, is not a bad second option. She can say goodbye or whatever she wants to say.
posted by AugustWest at 10:59 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Given their relationship it may be all that they need, but know that those "30 minutes" rules are not hard and fast. A dying person is only at risk for survival.
posted by rhizome at 11:49 AM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Also, I'll mention that the one local support person (Jason in this case) is completely exhausted and overwhelmed at this point. So even if you could only see Sarah for 1 minute or even zero minutes, being there to help & support Jason is going to be super-helpful. Mary can go shopping for him, clean the house, do the dishes, make various arrangements or phone calls, run any errands that need to be run, etc etc etc. Besides of course sitting in with her sister probably multiple times.

You might be able to be second-tier support for those kinds of things while you're there as well, which again is going to be super-helpful for the one person whose shoulders all this has fallen on so far.

Going from one person to three to take care of all these day-to-day details is going to be immensely helpful, even if it's only going to be possible for a couple of days.
posted by flug at 11:58 AM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


"I'm specifying all this so that you all don't think he's "just a boyfriend." But it's also not like they've been together 20 years."

I'm not sure the length of time they've been together is relevant. A 20-year marriage could be cruel and dysfunctional and a 4-year live-in relationship could be loving and supportive. Also if Sarah isn't that close with her family, that's all the more reason to think that Jason is her primary support.

I know this is a side issue, but I wanted to gently point out that Jason isn't likely to be in his best form at the moment and if I were you I'd guard against any prejudgments of him, even if those are motivated by your love of Mary.
posted by cranberrymonger at 2:12 PM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Ugh. These are exactly the dynamics of my family of origin, to the point where this was actually kind of painful to read.

As someone from a distant family like the one you're describing, in Sarah's shoes I'd appreciate your good intentions but also I would really want you to respect my right to make my own decisions about what is right for me. What you've been doing - being kind and encouraging and offering gentle pushback against things like "I want to call but don't feel allowed to" - is great. But "I've made the decision for you, I'll show up at 5 pm with a car and we're going" would be too much for me in Sarah's shoes and would feel closer to hurtful boundary-crossing than loving help.

I want to +1 this. Your job as Mary's friend is to help her get her needs met, and it's important to not accidentally confuse that with the needs that you would have in the same situation. You sound like you are doing a good job of proposing things and then watching her reaction carefully. I think that's good and important here.
posted by Susan PG at 6:16 PM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


My family dynamics are not dissimilar to this and I want to nth the "gentle encouragement not boundary crossing" advice.


When my dad was dying I did spend a lot of time with him (and I'm glad I did) but I visited back and forth for a couple of days at a time and juggled with work rather than stopping work and moving in with him perm for an extended period which a lot of people seemed to find shocking. This was partly because I felt it was really important to respect his relationship with my step-mother and give them time together without me there. They were only married 4 years (together about 8 years I think but long distance for a lot of that) but they absolutely adored each other. It's one of the parts I find saddest that he was miserable in a number of ways for a lot of his life and he finally was happy, retired and in a happy loving relationship and he only had a year or two of that before being diagnosed with cancer. So I do want to echo that a short relationship with Jason does not mean it isn't meaningful or important. My brother visited less than me but enough for him & Dad to know that they loved each other and for a meaningful goodbye. I was going to type "say what they needed to say" but actually very little was said because that's not how we do things in our family...

But do encourage. My mum and her brother hadn't been in contact for some time when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I did manage to gently encourage that (gentle being really key here as my mum can be very stubborn and forceful could easily have backfired) and I'm very glad I did, I really think she would have regretted not bridging that divide.

You sound like a great and very thoughtful friend, Mary is very lucky to have such good and understanding support.
posted by *becca* at 2:52 AM on March 19, 2020 [1 favorite]


I actually don’t find any of these feelings and reactions to be surprising. That should give you a sense of the family dynamics that I come from. I hear overwhelming fear coming from Mary and I hear you wanting to be brave for her. That’s such a gift. I agree with everyone and with you, if you can get her there, that would be the thing to do. Just try to stay neutral. Death is overwhelming and being judgmental about how people act when overwhelmed is not going to serve anyone. Anyone whose partner has been diagnosed with a terrible illness has been thrust into a caregiver role. Try to show compassion toward Jason. And know that he may be just as flummoxed by the family dynamic as you are, as well as tired and afraid and grieving.
posted by amanda at 6:34 AM on March 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


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