How to emphatically yet practically talk about not being able to travel
April 16, 2020 6:47 PM   Subscribe

My spouse's parent is undergoing surgery later today in another country. There is a high probability the parent won't survive the surgery or the immediate recovery (very elderly, emergency surgery, very significant issue, parent has been subtly preparing my spouse for the worst for the past few weeks etc). Travel back to that country for my spouse is unlikely to happen due to all sorts of COVID complications. I need help on how to be empathetic to my spouse, but still find a way to pragmatically talk about how we deal with this.

I tried having this conversation with my spouse last night because we mutually agreed we should come up with a plan if the worst happened, because it will be even more difficult to make that plan at that time. The conversation did not go well - I was being way to pragmatically minded (too much talking and dropping of facts - not enough listening) and they were (understandably) very emotional about the prospect of their parent passing without them being able to travel home now to be with them. It ended in tears. I've since apologized for the way I approached it - but the issue still remains.

Looking for guidance on how to approach this or not discuss it further. At the immediate moment I'm just giving my spouse space on this - and trying to be supportive outside of that discussion - and waiting to see what happens before we figure it out. But I'm conscious we have young kids (one who is autistic/has behavioral issues and who is absolutely terrified of anyone in the family dying given all they have heard about COVID), and trying to deal with this between a devastated spouse and highly dis-regulated child will be an absolute shit show.

Not that the below entirely matters, but just to be clear, I've done enough research in the last 48 hours to be confident that COVID has made such a trip (from where we live in Country A to where spouse's parent is in Country B) near impossible and highly risky to attempt.

1. Travel at the moment from Country A to B would involve transiting several other countries where boarders could change at any time and mess up the trip. And we haven't even checked on specific transit rules / changes in other visa/entry requirements yet to see if travel is truly even possible.

2. The obvious health risk of my spouse travelling internationally and being on planes/in airports for upwards of 40-60 hours given the very convoluted route involved (normally it would be 20-25 hours).

3. Current quarantine times (2 weeks mandatory in a government designated facility on entry to Country B, and again on the return to Country A, plus actual time in country B to attend to family affairs, make this an almost six week likely elapsed trip).

4. We have young children (both under 8) and I can not take off six weeks to care for them while my spouse travels. They can not travel with my spouse.

5. Travel cost would be prohibitive given the crazy pricing of international travel currently (north of $6k US for my spouses' flight alone plus likely hotel / accommodation costs because staying with family isn't an option due to Country B's self-isolation requirements) and we aren't in the position to do that without very heavy financial stress.

6. Even if spouse travels, in the event the parent is still in recovery - they likely won't be able to physically meet given health concerns. In the event the parent passes, my understanding is in Country B most families are choosing cremation and a delaying funerals until current restrictions on larger gatherings end - which could be weeks/months.

All in all a messed up, but I suspect not uncommon situation, given the current state of the world.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Looking for guidance on how to approach this or not discuss it further.

If this is your question, I think the answer is to not discuss it further. You can think about it all you want, but right now listening and being there for your spouse is paramount. Let your spouse guide further conversation.
posted by Mouse Army at 7:00 PM on April 16, 2020 [36 favorites]

In the event of a death in another country, the embassy should be able to provide information at least, possibly assistance. I think you could start collecting phone numbers.

As far as discussion, everybody is in a serious state of stress and anxiety, and it comes out in all sorts of ways. So the added stress of a parent's illness and risk of death is just piling it on. Spouse may be expressing the wish to be with their parent, even knowing it isn't possible, and you can say stuff like I know you wish you could be there/ It hurts not to be there. You can check in on unexpressed guilt, which is undeserved, but may still be present. You can be open about not being sure how to provide support This is so hard for you; I wish I knew how to help. And talk to the children about the stress and concern of grandparent's illness. Really, listening and being present are the best thing.

Who's taking care of you? Make sure you have a friend to talk to, a release valve of some sort. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 7:09 PM on April 16, 2020 [10 favorites]

I don't think there's any advantage to discussing it further at this stage.

(Personal background: my spouse's father died last week, after a recent diagnosis of cancer - within the COVID-19 times, so we knew from the start we were going to have travel problems. Feel free to memail me if you want to chat).

Honestly, the big issue with this kind of thing right now is that even if the worst happens there is NOTHING YOU CAN DO. You can't travel, you can't go to a funeral, you can't hug anyone you don't live with, you can't hold an in-person memorial or anything. Depending on the location, you might not even be permitted/able to send flowers or gifts. It might be that his other parent (if they are around) chooses to basically do nothing and wait until the pandemic is all over before acknowledging a death in any formal way. That's what my husband's mother did. An immediate cremation with no rites or ceremony, and then waiting. Other people whose partners die in this time might want to do everything they can online to commemorate the person, like a virtual wake or funeral. In that case, yes, there might be practical things that need planning, but if the people directly involved don't want to plan these in advance, you just can't. Honestly, even if the worst happens and they fall apart and can't organise a virtual memorial but want it to happen, there will be someone who can help to make it happen. A family friend who is personally not so emotionally affected. A priest or funeral director. Someone will ask if there's anything they can do and you can say, yes, please, this is the help we need.

Similarly for the surgery. You can't do anything practical. So I understand the feeling that you want to talk about it and make plans, because it comes from that itchiness to just do something and to figure out what that something could be. But it's just that: the talking is trying to meet a psychological need, rather than a practical necessity. Your partner's psychological needs are clearly not being met by the talking, so just let it go.

The only thing I would be doing at this stage is what parents should probably be doing at any time there is something scary happening - being a comforting presence for the kids, answering questions they might have. Maybe find some books to read them or other media they can experience that address themes of loss, death, medical treatment in an age-appropriate and comforting way.
posted by lollusc at 7:13 PM on April 16, 2020 [14 favorites]

In your shoes I would take all of those practical facts and shove them in the back of my mind. Then I would engage with my spouse about the loss of a parent, the tragedy of not seeing them one last time, the tragedy that your children won't seeing them one last time, and whole raft of emotions that she must be dealing with.

IF and ONLY IF she starts to talk about concrete plans to travel should any of your raft of practical facts come into play. Neither "I wish I could be there" nor even "I want to be there" is a concrete plan, it's just someone wrestling with tough emotions.

My suspicion is that at some level your wife knows full well she isn't going anywhere but it's such a tragic state of affairs that she needs to deal with it in her own time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:15 PM on April 16, 2020 [26 favorites]

It sounds to me like it's actually quite obvious to your partner that travel won't be happening- how could they not know? Their tears are likely because ... well... they're sad! That is shitty painful news, and it's an unsolveable and emotionally devastating problem, and you're hammering them with facts and fears and worries, increasing their stress response by adding conflict and ugly truths, instead of being supportive.

The travel isn't going to happen, period, so quit talking about it.

Be loving and supportive.
Take care of the kids.
Regulate yourself carefully around the kids and reassure them.
Don't have the news on constantly. Soft pleasant music, or silence.
Clean the house, and the bathroom & tub if Spouse enjoys baths.
Make or buy some palatable, reheatable, meals.
Stock the house with Spouse's favourite comfort foods.
Get the kids out of the house when possible to give your partner some time alone.
Give your partner a massage and soothing experiences.
See if you can find ways for your spouse to videochat their parent and other family members.
Stop talking so much and do more hugging.

When the parent dies, take a few days off work and lighten their load with childcare and housework, and enlist some of their friends to check in on them, and send food, flowers, etc. Everyone is being a worse friend than usual right now because their own buckets are leaking so badly due to general lockdown stress, so explicitly asking friends to check in on Spouse would be a nice thing to do.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:20 PM on April 16, 2020 [18 favorites]

Mod note: Gentle reminder that no genders are stated in the question.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:24 PM on April 16, 2020 [24 favorites]

Oh, and part of the itchiness to do something and make plans comes from our long experience with illness and death that there is a lot of stuff that has to be done and organised, but actually right now there really isn't.

Some practical things you can maybe do to help you feel more in control of the situation, but that don't necessarily require your spouse:
- find out his/her work leave policies and procedures if possible. If worst comes to the worst you will be able to say something like, "you can take a week of paid leave. You just need to log into this webpage and click these buttons".
- get hold of contact details for someone who lives locally to the parent: maybe another relative, or a spiritual advisor, or a neighbour. That way you'll be able to suggest someone who can check in on them if necessary.
- find the details for any local stores that are still doing delivery, so you'd be able to order food or something for the parent if they need it.

And a couple of things that we did wish we had thought of in our case, but unfortunately would need participation of the parent and/or spouse:
- computer passwords. My husband's dad did online banking, email, and had a few other online sites he used. His wife does not use a computer at all. No one knows what his passwords were or where they were stored (if anywhere). It's okay, we'll sort it all out, but it would have been easier if they were stored in a password manager or even written down on a sheet of paper.
- info for general financial things, which he managed by himself. My brother-in-law has power of attorney, so he can make financial decisions etc, but no one knows things like which companies various insurances are with, how often bills are paid and when they are next due, and whether they'll come by mail or electronically (and to which account). Contact details for accountants, lawyers, etc.
- contact details for his friends who were not mutual friends, e.g. former colleagues, people he knew through societies his wife was not a member of, etc. It would be good to be able to contact them directly and tell them about his death rather than them learning it from the organisations in question.
posted by lollusc at 7:28 PM on April 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

You already know all of the answers, you’ve checked everything out. Now isn’t the time to rehash it all with your partner, now is the time to support them. If the worst should happen and the parent passes, then you can discuss everything you discovered. Right now, hearing that they might not be able to travel to their parent is just distressing your spouse unnecessarily. Let it go and only bring it up when you have to.

At this point, they need hugs and sympathy, telling them their parent will probably die and be buried alone just feels cruel, even if it is true (and I know you’re researching this out of love and a need to be helpful). I’m sorry you’re both going through this, it’s just awful.

We are going through something similar, someone very close to my husband has just died. Not only can we not go to the state they’re in because the borders are closed, there’s no flights there, there’s a two week quarantine, we can’t travel to their region and even if we could, there’s an 8 person limit to the funeral. So we just have to grieve from a distance.
posted by Jubey at 8:15 PM on April 16, 2020

I think the only reason for you to be firm and pragmatic about travel is if your spouse starts taking concrete steps that would lead to that travel. As they start to look for flights / trains / etc., that is when I would say something like "I wish we could go, too." I would judge what to do next based on their response.

It can often be therapeutic to imagine doing the thing which we know we can't do, even up to pantomiming some of the steps that lead up to it. As much as you can, give them space to process things in the best way for them, and step in only if it seems they're actually in need of the convincing -- as nouvelle-personne says, they probably know that it can't happen, anyway.
posted by dbx at 8:16 PM on April 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

If the question comes up again, you could give a response like "I'm concerned about you traveling given the situation. Let's check with [relevant authority]."

If you contact, for example, the spouse's parent's doc and ask for their advice on whether spouse should travel to visit parent, and they say no, that's pretty much it. It will probably be easier for the spouse and their parent to accept the verdict from the doc than from you, and you can focus on being supportive.

Another thing you can do is try to help your spouse support their parent at this time. Looking up places that will do delivery for them is a great option. Making sure the parent has a device for videochat and knows how to use it might be another.
posted by bunderful at 8:19 PM on April 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

To reiterate some of the above in a more, um, blunt manner:

Silence your (logical) opinions, and listen to their emotions.

...there is essentially no way they will be allowed to make this trip, so don't burn interpersonal capital on fighting it.

[now, then, to return to my native bastard self: if they do actually attempt this it is a terrible sign. Like, sufficiently bad that if it were me I'd be reevaluating our relationship and future, no lie. Granted, in my family if my mother were dying and I went to visit under these circumstances she'd spend her last moments berating me for being a fucking moron, so in all honesty that's the background I'm coming from and thus feel free to ignore me.]
posted by aramaic at 8:37 PM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I tried having this conversation with my spouse last night because we mutually agreed we should come up with a plan if the worst happened, because it will be even more difficult to make that plan at that time.

I don't understand what you mean by a plan or what your spouse's position even is, that doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere. if one can have a position on one's parent dying any more than one can have a plan for it right now. you allude to their emotions but say nothing about their intentions.

Your plan should be to make sure the hospital contacts your spouse as next of kin as soon as there's news. then, if it's bad news, you offer all the emotional support that you can and that is wanted. the endless cascade of well-known and unfortunate but irrelevant facts has no place here. They can't travel for a visit or a funeral, and that's not because you say so. no purpose is served by you repeatedly making sure they heard you say so.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:50 PM on April 16, 2020 [8 favorites]

So sorry you're all going through this. My impression of what you've written is that you seem to want reassurance from your spouse that they aren't going to try to travel right now. Is that a fair read? I can understand why you would want to hear that - however, I don't think you can reasonably ask for that reassurance from them. From a "comfort in/dump out" perspective, right now your spouse is in the center ring. Focus on supporting them.

Travel most likely isn't going to happen, for all the reasons you listed - and I'm guessing your spouse knows all these reasons already. How unthinkably awful for them. They might not even be in a place where they can say out loud that they won't be there if their parent passes. They need you on their side right now so much more than they need you to tell them why they can't travel.

Your actions should enable them to look back on this terrible time one day and still feel the love and support you provided. nouvelle-persone and lollusc both have really good lists above of things that you can do to provide support - I think you should focus on things like these and just be there for your spouse as they go through this awful experience.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:11 PM on April 16, 2020 [7 favorites]

Some thoughts, from an end-of-life doula in Minnesota, for you and/or your spouse:

- Take a deep breath -- "Death is not an emergency, so if you are having trouble sorting through your jumbled ideas, press pause."
- Hang Onto These Moments -- have someone take photos of your spouse's parent.
- Be present with your grief -- do what feels right, but don't forget to take care of yourselves.
- Adapt the funeral -- it sounds like this is already being considered, which could be an opportunity to find some small comfort that your spouse isn't missing any imminent services, should their parent pass.
- Plan for the future -- but also celebrate life now, if and how it's possible for your spouse, for you, and for your family.

I'm cribbing the post, and modifying as it may be appropriate for this circumstance. There's more in the post.

(Virtual hugs), if you want them.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:46 PM on April 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

Following on from Dingo Mutt's points (which I think are very wise) I wonder if you could see your way to approaching the conversation from a more open perspective. It sounds like you've done all the research (which is great, your spouse probably couldn't cope with that right now) and have reached a very logical conclusion that they can't go, which is really hard for your spouse to hear. If you started a conversation with hearing and acknowledging that they really really want to be there and you want to support them, you want them to be able to go if at all possible but there are practical problems that you would need to solve to make that happen and that would have long term consequences for you all as a family.

It might help the conversation go better if you both feel like you are working together on a truly terrible problem, rather than you telling your spouse point blank that they cannot go and that the childcare and longer term financial implications are more important than them being there for their parent when they are needed most (I'm not saying you're wrong, I think you may be overestimating the to your partner unless they have an underlying risk factor the vast majority of people who get COVID are mildly to unpleasantly ill but don't need hospital care but otherwise you know your family and whether you and your children could cope without them for the time needed and whether you could manage the financial stress).
posted by *becca* at 1:13 AM on April 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'd just like to emphasize the points above about giving your spouse as much space and support to be stressed about the surgery and process all the emotions surrounding whatever the outcome may be. If they were there in person, you (hopefully) wouldn't expect them to carry on as normal, so please make sure that you aren't expecting that of them just because they aren't able to be there. This will most likely involve you taking some time off from work to take on as much child care and household responsibilities as possible.

Don't make the mistake my husband and I made when my dad was dying and I was living far away with two small kids - 3 years later I'm still trying to work through my grief and our relationship is still impacted because I didn't get to fully process and work through my grief at the time.
posted by brambory at 1:40 AM on April 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

I’m so sorry your family is going through this.

There really isn’t any need to make a plan now. You and your spouse and the world restrictions will almost certainly not radically change if your spouse’s parent dies. There is a lot of truth that grief alters us, but that grief has already started. Your decision to have that conversation wasn’t right or wrong but there was a faulty assumption which is that it’s “easier” now. It’s not. It’s actually harder in uncertainty (“what if my parents dies and I can’t be there?”) than certainty (“my parent has died and I can’t be there.”)

So I’m adding my voice to the chorus that your spouse is grieving, so provide love and comfort and care.

It also sounds like you are dealing with a lot vis a vis your child’s emotional state and a lot of your fear and grief sounds like it’s attached to what will you do if your spouse becomes physically or emotionally unavailable to do childcare. That’s really hard, and for parents right now it is kind of terrifying because we can’t engage schools/daycares/friends/extended family in dealing with these hurdles. You can’t ask a friend to come watch your kids so you can take your spouse out for dinner, or has a grief meltdown for a day. It might be worth saying that out loud because that is something you might be able to address as a team, plan takeout, order up a stack of LEGO kits that will occupy your child, etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:00 AM on April 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

In addition to the great advice above, I can imagine that if I were in your spouse’s situation, I would have a real need to fully investigate the options for going, in order to know that I did everything I could. If your spouse starts investigating travel plans, let them. You know what the outcome will be - they can’t go. But the sheer fact of knowing that for sure, seeing the evidence themselves, and feeling like they made all the effort they possibly could, might be important for them both now and to avoid future “what-if”s.
posted by penguin pie at 7:26 AM on April 17, 2020 [13 favorites]

My spouse had to deal with a similar situation lately, making elaborate plans and contingencies for travel we both knew couldn't happen, and he expressed his feelings really well after the fact. Ruminating over the details of the trip, figuring out how he could possibly get around all the restrictions and make it happen, was his way of working through the guilt he felt just accepting the impossibility of it. Like, in normal circumstances, the right thing would be to move mountains to make the trip happen at all costs, and he couldn't live with himself until he was sure he had explored and exhausted all possibilities.
Knowing that, I wish that I had spent less time trying to convince him of the many reasons why it couldn't happen, and more time reassuring him that staying was the right thing.
posted by Freyja at 7:35 AM on April 17, 2020 [16 favorites]

It sounds as if making concrete plans about why travel can't happen and lists of specific material facts in general might be your own way of dealing with stress and anxiety. It is very common for one partner to need support through expressive, non-directive, non-outcome -oriented talk or supportive silent care and the other to feel comforted by concrete information and goals. In normal times, both styles should be accommodated. In this circumstance because it is your spouse who is actually losing a parent you need to suppress your own style of comfort-making and attend to theirs. But I think here, the thing to realize is that the lists you're making are not just "practical" but are serving a calming purpose for you in a scary situation where you too feel you have no control. If you realize this, you can be kind to yourself for needing these facts emotionally as you consider the possibility of the emotional upheaval to come. You too are important here, and your anxiety matters. But you need to support your spouse first bc it is they who are losing a parent. If you recognize that the list you present is not just pragmatic but a style of soothing your own anxiety, you can continue making such plans silently as a comfort to yourself and then make yourself emotionally available to your spouse in the way they need, as has been well-said above.
posted by nantucket at 7:41 AM on April 17, 2020 [10 favorites]

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