#1039: How to deal with people’s interest in my mother’s health?

Hi,

I’m a 30 year old man with a family of four, and I’m a member of a church community of about 140 people, 80 active members. I’ve been mostly inactive for over 10 years, but go to things occasionally. My parents have been active my whole life, up until five years ago my mother got very ill. My father has kept going to church and doing activities, up until the last year. His reason was that he was sick of people asking how my mother was doing and never asking him how he was doing, and has stopped attending.

Initially, I didn’t think much of this and felt my father’s reasoning sounded a bit selfish. My wife has pointed out that it was our community’s way of indirectly asking how he is doing and showing they care. I had experienced some of the same, but didn’t think much of it, until I started getting active again in the last couple months, and honestly, I’m starting to see what my dad means.

Week to week, my mother’s health does not change. Every couple months she has an episode of some kind and recovers afterwards. But that is the question, every time single time I attend an event, multiple times per event. It is surprisingly grating over time. I feel like it would rude/passive to aggressive to add, “I’m doing fine by the way” or “She’s not getting better, stop asking.” I do think it’s coming from a good place, but I’m seriously thinking about attending a church that doesn’t know my mother.

Thanks,

Random Dude

Dear Random,

I know the people mean well and they are following a very classic, approved social script to connect and show concern for others but I can 100% see why it’s grating on you. I don’t think finding a church that doesn’t know your mom is the worst idea you could have, but in the meantime, try channeling people’s expressions of concern into a way they can take action:

  • “Mom’s the same. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you if you want to send a card/visit/call her up.”
  •  “She’s out of it most of the time but it’s still nice when people come by and sit with her.” 

You could channel the concern into action that helps your Dad:

  • She’s not well, truth be told – No change since last time we talked. You know what, though? My dad could really use a visit/a casserole/a ride to the doctor/a break from sitting with her/a game of Scrabble/a call to see how he’s doing if you wanted to reach out to him.

What will happen over time is that some people might take action and do nice stuff for your parents and others might get the hint that if they bring up your folks you’re going to expect them to follow through in some way that requires actual effort.

You could also try the blanket strategy for any uncomfortable topic:

  • Oh, thanks for asking, but I need to talk about something else today.”
  • “No change. I really need a break from thinking about it or talking about it – what’s new with you?
  • No change.” + “Here’s what’s up with me/the kids/the rest of the family” (i.e. answer the question you wish they’d asked)

Third strategy: Talk to the pastor AND the sweetest, kindest congregant who loves helping that you know. Bonus if s/he is in your mom’s age group or friendly with her. Tell those people exactly what you told us. “I know people are being kind when they ask about my mom, but it really stresses me out, truth be told. I know it sounds selfish but Mom’s not getting better, but she’s also not here and and my family and I are here right now. I wish someone would ask me how *I’m* doing, or talk about the day’s service or the kids or literally anything else. Is there a way to spread the word about that? Or some way that I can respond without coming across like a jerk?

If the pastor is understanding, you could talk directly about your dad. “Hey, my dad loved coming here, but he stopped because of this same reason – he felt that nobody saw him and they only wanted to talk about her. I also know he could use a break/a hot meal now and again/a place to worship and call home. Would you be willing to talk with him about it? I hate that he feels so cut off.

Also see if you can channel the pastor and your newfound church accomplice in ways that actually help your family. For instance, if something changes with your mom’s illness, could you tell them and then they could update everybody so you don’t have to do it over donuts every Sunday one excruciating conversation at a time? If your mom needs cards/calls/visits, could they organize something ongoing? If your dad needs a break from caring for her or an invitation to come play cribbage to get out of the house, can they check in with him and see? Is there something you and your wife & kids need that the church could help with?

Even the best people with the best intentions need to be pointed in the right direction sometimes.

 

 

94 comments
  1. wealtheow said:

    My church does this same thing: my brother, who is a higher profile in the church than me, is currently studying abroad to become a pastor. Everyone always asks after him, and only him, to me. The Captain’s advice is great, and really does work! Eventually people will get the clue and move on to other topics, or at least not lead with this.

    I’d also add if your church is the same as mine, it will have a member of the ministry team dedicated to pastoral care. Seek them out and discuss this: they should listen, and hopefully it will be raised at the next ministry team meeting.

  2. n.b. said:

    Know the situation and feeling. Beautiful answer.

    I’ve got a friend who was suffering some really hard, sad losses but got injured in the midst of them. People at church shied away from asking about the personal stuff but were all over him about the injury. He mostly listened politely and became resentful and isolated, even though he knew they meant well and were following the social script that says asking about physical health is a safer way to show concern than bringing up sorrow and anger. I think this advice would have really helped him! Hope it helps your family, LW.

  3. GreenDoor said:

    Excellent advice and scripts!

    I would just like to offer some advice to those on the other side of this situation – the people asking you how you’re doing. Often we find ourselves in a position where we see someone going through a rough time and want to help but don’t know how. The temptation is to simply say, “If there’s anything I can do…” or “If you need anything, just let me know….” But when someone is in the midst of a tragedy, or grief, or the emotional drain of being a caregiver, it can be impossible to come up with that list of things they need. So most people in a hard situation just don’t ask.

    Instead of saying, “If there’s anything I can do…,” be specific and just offer what you are willing and able to do so they have some idea of what they can call upon you for.
    “I love doing laundry. If you don’t mind me coming over for a few hours, I’d be happy to do yours!”
    “I’m off work on Monday. Why don’t I sit with your mom and you can go run some errands for a few hours?”
    “We’re going to the pumpkin farm this weekend. If you need a break, we’d love to take your kids with us!”

    Specific ideas are so much more helpful to a person going through a hard time than a generic platitude of “If you need anything, just call”

    • Yes to the specific ideas. My dad’s friend’s wife is dying. Instead of asking how we can help, we’ve been making meals, taking the grandkids, and helping with wedding plans (daughter moved up her wedding so her mom could be there).

      I think most people do want to help out in these kind of situations, but are just shy about offering something. Or feel like bringing some soup isn’t doing enough. But, in the end, a little care can go a long way.

      • GrumpyZena said:

        Never dismiss the power of a small, kind gesture. (TW: suicide)

        I am literally alive right now because a friend of mine bought me a bunch of silly, cute gifts one day when we were 16. She said, “I just thought you looked really sad yesterday, so I got these to cheer you up.” She didn’t know it at the time, but I was suicidal. And weirdly, that’s what got me through. I would literally think (and it sounds so stupid now), “Well, I can’t kill myself NOW, friend would be really sad that her presents didn’t cheer me up enough.” I’m 32 now.

        • Nicky said:

          It doesn’t sound stupid at all. Sometimes the things we need are the smallest, silliest things – maybe they’re the proof that someone’s thinking about you in small moments, not just the big ones? – and somehow they have the power to anchor us.

        • thneedle said:

          Grumpy One, that had me laughing thru my tears. Thank you for that.

        • Makes perfect sense to me.

          When I was suicidal, the thought of how badly my nephew would take it, how he would think “Aunt Michelle didn’t love me enough to stay and play with me,” it is what pulled me through. Knowing that someone cares, and would be really upset if you were to kill yourself, can make all the difference in the world.

        • Jax said:

          I don’t think that sounds stupid at all. During one of the worst times of my life one of my closest friends would text these goofball memes to me at random times throughout the day. For months! I never knew when they were coming and they were all puns and ridiculous things she just knew would crack me up. I remember them startling me into laughter. Sometimes getting them while I was crying so hard I could barely breathe, seeing one and then laughing til I choked. It was the best. Such a little thing. I think the little things might really be the biggest things of all.

        • Ellociraptor said:

          Not stupid! One thing I remember from Russel Brand’s book My Booky Wook is him talking about going to therapy and learning that if you know someone is suicidal, you should always make plans with them when you part ways. Because if that person then wants to kill themselves they will think “but I can’t kill myself today, Russel and I are seeing Finding Nemo on Tuesday!”. Obv it won’t cure depression, but that advice stuck with me since I read it ten years ago.

        • Turquoise Dragon said:

          When I was sixteen, it was remembering how much my grandfather’s death had hurt my father just two years earlier. I felt dreadful and like I didn’t want to live – but I was *not* doing that to my father a second time!

      • Jenna said:

        When my husband was sick we got a lot of “thoughts and prayers,” but the people I really appreciated brought us food, helped make a wheelchair ramp, helped with house repairs, took me to breakfast after he passed.
        When I was dealing with cancer treatment, my true friends took down my Christmas tree and decorations, sat with me during chemo, drove me to surgery, and made me food I could eat.
        When my brother was sick I was impressed with their church because they came and did the yard work. His employer rallied people to help finish the kitchen remodel my brother had gotten ill in the middle of.
        Just asking how someone is doing, or keeping them in your prayers…it gets lost in the noise of all the stuff caregivers or sick people have to worry about doing. Actually lifting part of that load of stuff to keep track of, things to do, that will be appreciated far, far more.

        • BigDogLittleCat said:

          “Two hands working accomplish more than a thousand hands praying.”

        • Anon, Goodnight said:

          Sometimes, even the suggestion of a specific activity is helpful, even if the person doesn’t take you up on it. When my mother died, I spent several weeks cleaning out her house (staying there while I did it.) One of my cousins offerred to take me out for a drive any time I wanted to get out of her house. I didn’t really want company, but the offer reminded me to take breaks. I ended up taking myself for a few solo drives, and it really helped. (Please note–I am NOT suggesting doing a “you should” at someone who is struggling. This comment is meant to point out that offers of specific help can make a difference even if they are declined.)

          • There’s a big difference between “You should,” and “This works for me. I wonder if it would work for you?” Or even “This works for me,” and leave the next sentence unspoken.

            And yes, offers of help do really make a difference, even if they are declined, because they show that someone cared, and sometimes, just knowing that we aren’t alone is really all we need, or can handle at the time.

        • GreyjoyGardens said:

          Yes! Practical help, if possible, is always appreciated. I’ve also suggested care coordination apps and websites (like Lotsa Helping Hands, Caringbridge, the AARP Caregiving app) or even a Google spreadsheet, to keep track of who is offering what and when. That way you don’t get a zillion casseroles when you really need someone to rake the leaves, or walk the dog, or just sit with the ill person to give a caregiver some time off.

        • This is very true!

          However, as tarma pointed out, when the people have all the practical stuff taken care of, forcing practical offers on them just ticks them off.

          I think, therefor, the best option is to ask/offer, and then respect whatever answer they give you! Along with that, if you’re in a position of being asked/offered, answer truthfully! Don’t play the game of “testing to see who really cares by being persistent.”

          Don’t “play hard to get,” with what you need, and don’t refuse to take no for an answer, when you make an offer, and everyone will be happy. Right?

          • sorcharei said:

            Sometimes, what someone needs is a specific offer of help, even if they decline it, because what they really need is proof that someone else is willing to offer something more concrete than thoughts and prayers. Sometimes, the people taking care of a dying person really don’t have the brain cycles left to figure out what specific thing you could do that would help. Sometimes, the difference between ask culture and guess culture gets all mixed up in this. Some people don’t actually get “ticked off” when someone makes an offer of specific help they don’t need. Some people don’t find it hard to answer “tell me something specific you need and I will do it”.

            My point is that everyone is different, and every situation is different. The best thing to do is to use your knowledge of the people involved and do your best.

            As an example, when my mom was dying, two of her sisters moved in with my mom and dad. My brother was there every weekend. I was there at least once a month and stayed for several days at a time. My mom’s friends (she had TONS of friends, mostly people with highly developed emotional intelligence) organized themselves to do laundry daily (dying at home can be messy, it turns out) and sat with my mom while the dryer ran so my dad could go for a daily walk with one of his friends and my aunts could get a break as well, built a wheelchair ramp (and later disassembled it when it was no longer needed), and set up a “telephone tree” so my dad and my aunts only had to tell three people (one each, from three of my mother’s social circles) when something changed. Some of them cooked my mom’s favorite foods while she could still eat (and they didn’t have to ask what they were, because that was a thing they knew about her).

            By contrast, when my mom’s eldest sister was dying, my uncle would have been horrified if two of her sisters had even wanted to stay with them when they visited. My aunt was much more of an introvert than my mom, and had many fewer friends (but the ones she had were very very close to her). The only ones of her “friends” my uncle was comfortable with were my parents. Not her other six siblings and their spouses, or even my parents’ children — just my parents. My mom drove up to see her three times a week and jollied my uncle to run errands while she was there. My dad built wheelchair ramps and installed a stair elevator. One of her friends came by once a week and took the laundry away to do somewhere else so they wouldn’t be “underfoot” while the dryer was running. Another set up a meal service for my aunt and uncle, because my uncle could accept a company delivering food much more easily than her friends and sisters doing it. They sent long letters because reading letters to her was a thing my stiff-rumpled uncle loved to do for his wife.

            The differences? My mom and her sister were very different people, but more importantly, my uncle and my dad were so different as to be practically from different species. What worked for my parents (asking for what was needed and letting people into their home to do those things) would have wrecked my uncle, but it saved my dad’s sanity. He could see how much they were both loved and appreciated, and it made the difference for him between being able to ride out the tragic path of my mom’s sickness and dying. My uncle, on the other hand, welcomed practical help that he didn’t have to be connected to, but mostly valued people sending cards and letters to my aunt. And unlike my dad, who was very able to ask for what he needed, my uncle had so little self-awareness that he never once had a good answer for “what can I do to help?”

            For the LW, I like the Captain’s advice very much. For the rest of us, it’s helpful to remember that people are quite different from one another, and to the extent we can, the best gift we can give is to offer the kind of help that will help the individual people involved. This is emotional labor, and when people are in crisis, often the best gift we can give them is to do the emotional labor part of “helping”, by figuring out what kind of help is useful for these people.

          • ran out of nesting.
            sorcharei, thanks for the detailed compare/contrast essay.

            tl/dr:

            People are different.
            Different strokes for different folks.
            General assumptions tend to fit badly.
            Etc.

    • Ginger said:

      I’m such a fan of this and especially things like “let me take the kids off your hands for a while, mine would love to see them and we will hit up the museum”. LIFESAVER when offered to me, and an easy thing for me to offer someone else.

    • tarma said:

      And back to the other side, if “thanks, but I’ve got everything covered”, repeating your offers over and over again is going to have exactly the same effect as the OP is describing. I had to go into the hospital for two separate operations this year and I spent way too much of my time deflecting people who were kind enough to say “would you like me to do your shopping for me/come over and cook for you/etc?” And it WAS kind. The FIRST and second and MAYBE third time they asked. But I am a super private person (quite frankly if I could have got away without letting anyone know about the operations I would have), and even more so when I’m ill or injured. I had already stocked my fridge, cleaned my house, set up an account so I could order groceries in if I needed more, queued up a big-ass Netflix watchlist, stocked up on books, had clean bedding ready to switch in the day before I went in, and made sure I had all the types of medication/aftercare items I might need afterward. On top of that, I’d already arranged with my mom to help me with anything I couldn’t handle myself. People drove me NUTS getting into offer-decline-offer-decline-offer-FUCKOFFImeanthanksbutnothanks loops. Conversation became a steady (and weirdly fractal) stream of nothing but “let me know if you want me to come over and _______.” “Thanks, but as I said (six billion times before), I’ve already arranged for _______.” They’d repeat their offer. I’d decline again. They’d alter the wording a little. I’d decline again. I’d finally end the conversation a little tersely when I got bored of repeating myself, and then the next time we talked, they’d do THE EXACT. SAME. THING.

      • Temperance said:

        I’ve been there, too! I was in the ICU for a spell, and was very messed up when I got out. However, there wasn’t anything that I needed help with. I needed people to support Booth, because it was harder on him than me. I needed people to get him out of the house while I sat around and watched lots and lots of TV.

      • CAnemone said:

        Not to get off topic, but your level of forethought and organization makes you my personal hero. That is all.

      • Sometimes, just knowing that people are thinking about you is *literally* all you need or want!

      • LOL my grandma is the same, she prepares everything and wants to self-care – she’s only in the low 90s after all, time for full-time help when she reaches her century maybe?

        Then she fell and needed help… and needing help hurt more than the fall.

        So one of her children is the designated buffer, who has the job of relaying good wishes and telling people if any kind of help is needed.

        Maybe that could work for some people?

        But for the OP specifically, he actually IS the buffer, and doesn’t want to be, because it turns him invisible as a person. So there’s that to remember, too.

    • Kitty said:

      Yes this. When my cousin died, I tried to offer specific concrete things to her family. Like, I can cook a bunch of meals for your freezer, or do your grocery shopping, or drive cousin’s daughter wherever she needs to go. They didn’t end up taking me up on any, but all these things were ones I would definitely have followed through if they had.

  4. VG said:

    My late husband had a chronic illness with a similar pattern (hospitalisation a few times a year, followed by recovery, but with a general slow downward trend) and his stock answer for people who asked after his health was “Just taking it one day at a time.” It didn’t stop the initial enquiries, but did seem to clue them in that he didn’t want to have a long conversation about it, especially combined with a “So how about that (sports team)?” We bothe did get very tired of talking/being asked about it, so I totally understand where LW and his dad are coming from..

    • OMJ said:

      After one of my professors went through a health scare, her stock answer to how are you doing questions became, “As well as can be expected.” She explained that it was accurate whether she was doing well or not, so she didn’t have to worry about how to answer when asked.

      • Mine is “I’m here.”

        On a good day, it’s “I’m here!”

  5. two creatures said:

    Oh, I relate to this and to feeling guilty about being ungrateful. My dad has had a rough few years. It’s taken a long time to correctly diagnose an autoimmune disease, and it’s kinda felt like hit after hit after hit. My problem is when my MIL, who cares very much about my family, just wants to sit down and talk about how BAD she feels for my dad and how SORRY she is and isn’t it SAD and HARD… Thankfully, she does this just to me, not to my parents, but gahhhhhhh I hate it so much. I know it’s bad! I know it’s hard! I’m closer to it all and I don’t need the reminder, thanks. My dad has been so strong through all of this parade of suck and I can’t deal with the pity. Anyhow. I will use some of these scripts – thanks Captain!

      • two creatures said:

        Thanks – I like that theory. I think if you asked my MIL directly, she would think that was she was doing was comforting, heh. Definitely not experienced that way….

        • FancyPants said:

          two creatures, my mother does the exact same thing. Every time I see her we have to have the “Oh, [situation] must be so stressful for you,” conversation. I know she thinks she’s being comforting and sympathetic, but man.

  6. CMart said:

    The Captain’s suggestions are lovely, especially about maybe talking to the pastor or The Most Kindhearted Congregant. Most faith communities in my experience want to at least attempt to help people in the ways they would like to be helped and would relish the opportunity to begin a campaign of “everyone ask Random Dude what his kids are up to!”

    I’ve been navigating a much, much lower-key version of this being the mother of a new baby. People love to ask “how is she sleeping?” and it grated on me for a million and one reasons for a while. Then I just reframed the question in my mind to instead hear them asking “are you having a hard time? How are you holding up?” ‘Sleep’ was just the very common, coded way of asking a deeper question while not seeming to pry.

    So someone asks “how is she sleeping?” and I’ll give a cursory answer to the face of the question (“I’m not sure she knows what ‘sleep’ is.”) and then respond to the implied question by then speaking about how it is affecting me in the ways I want to talk about. “I think I’m drinking about a gallon a day to stay alert at work, it’s our busy season right now and things are crazy. Did you know the government now requires TPS reports in seven different fonts??”

    It’s worked beautifully, honestly. I get to have a less superficial conversation, and people seem to appreciate my willingness to “open up”.

    • two creatures said:

      There was a whole thread about the “How is baby sleeping?” question on one of the new mom boards I visit. It can be so stressful! Especially since it is very (VERY) common for little babies to not sleep well. They’re just learning how to do it! But it feels like this referendum on your parenting, esp when it’s not getting any better, or maybe getting worse (looking at you, 4 month sleep regression).

      But you’re right, it’s kinda like the “how are you” of new baby communication – just a general question that everyone asks to get into a convo about a newborn. Reframing it that way, and not feeling like you have to answer specifically about the Ferber method helps….

      • Not a parent here, so I’d like to know, would “Is your baby sleeping, yet?” be better? Obviously, if I’m up for babysitting, the question would be, “So, when do I get to babysit the Adorable One?” I used to do that, but I don’t, anymore, because I’m rarely a responsible adult, these days.

        But asking if the baby is sleeping, at all, now that I think of it, would probably be just as bad, because if the baby isn’t sleeping, then it just reminds the parents of the irritation, right?

        What would be better? “Is the baby recognizing people, yet?” or something like that?

        • SS Express said:

          When my niece was born I’d usually ask my SIL/BIL “how have you all been?”, “has baby done anything cute this week?” or “has she hit any new milestones/learned any new tricks?”. I really have no idea what babies should or shouldn’t be doing at different ages so for me open-ended questions are safer. And then the parent can answer with basically anything they want to talk about – “she learned to smile and the nurse said she’s the world’s healthiest baby and parenting rulz”, “she screams all day and never sleeps and I’m at the end of my tether”, “grandma took her to the park yesterday and I went to the movies, have you seen Wonder Woman yet?”.

        • two creatures said:

          I had a boss who always asked something like “What fun thing is (child) doing these days?” I think that works super well for babies over, like…12 weeks? Because then they’re always doing something new and it gives the parents chance to brag/gush. Babies under 12 weeks can be tiny sleeping/pooping blobs, so I agree with the “How’s everyone doing?” with the tone balanced enough to suggest “It’s ok for you to blankly stare at me and mutter “We’re still alive.” “

        • TootsNYC said:

          “Not a parent here, so I’d like to know, would “Is your baby sleeping, yet?” be better?”

          Actually, don’t ASK. What you want to convey is that you know sleeping can be difficult w/ babies, and you wish them good things in that arena.

          So say what you are really wanting to say: “I hope the baby is letting you get some sleep.” Then they can talk about what they want, without the extra level of “I’m expecting a specific answer” or the “prying” feeling.

          Go for statements of good wishes. They have a harder time being wrong.

    • Friday said:

      This is a brilliant way of diverting, especially st work. I am a new mother and the questions about pregnancy and new baby keep driving me mad. I am supposed to be good at what I do. I don’t want to talk about baby, toddler or pregnancy at work. I want to do my work so I can finish on time and go home to said baby, toddler & needed rest. (Especially when baby is not sleeping. I just don’t see how talking about it with someone who cannot offer practical help will make me feel better.)

      I know people mean well, but it becomes so tedious to repeat the same conversation with every person you talk to.

      • Esme said:

        Another possible script: It is what it is. *Subject Change*.

      • AnonBee said:

        Haha wait a few years until you have to answer “why?” a million times to the same little person.

        • HistorianNina said:

          Um, maybe you were trying to commiserate or establish common parenting ground or something, but that is a super unhelpful response. It really feels like parent one-upping, or the weird “you think you have it bad now, just wait it gets so much worse!” dance, which is so difficult to hear as a new parent. I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but it sounds like you are dismissing Friday’s struggle now and also doomsaying her about the future. Maybe save commiserating about that for a parent who is currently struggling with it? Or has passed that stage by?

    • Dearest CMart,
      “Did you know the government now requires TPS reports in seven different fonts??”

      It is now right before Halloween, and to be honest I did not realize the government requires Toilet Paper Slams to be in any font at all.

      Thank you for the update.
      /derail

  7. Clarry said:

    When I was asked what they could do to help my ailing father, I answered that my mother was going nuts in the house with him and needed someone to take her out to lunch. (There’s a health aide to help him.) I was quite specific. I named a restaurant and a day of the week. I said that my mother would likely refuse if she knew that I’d set it up– she has this whole I-don’t-deserve-it thing going so I gave a specific strategy for that– say you’re dropping by to see him, then be on hand to take her out. I was surprised and delighted when they thanked me for reaching out. I don’t expect that response from everyone who says they’re willing to help, but there are positive responses out there.

    • Thanksforallthefish said:

      That’s a really brilliant and specific strategy.

  8. Miranda LeClair said:

    A few possibly useful tools. Caringbridge is a website where you can set up a website for actual updates when you have them. You could set one up and then direct people to check it rather than ask your dad. Take them a meal is a great website for setting up regular meal donations, if that’s a good way people can help him. Last e-resource idea I have is this article from a favorite blog: http://www.epbot.com/2016/09/can-we-make-pegs-thing.html – basically the author suggests a form one can fill out that gives ideas that are helpful to a person in emergency times. Getting something similar (I know it isn’t exactly an emergency but still) out via gossip to people at the church could be helpful. Basically giving people a list of good things your Dad would like to talk about, rather than having them avoiding him because they know he doesn’t want to be asked for the nth time how Mom is doing, but they’re clueless about what else to talk about.

  9. Miranda LeClair said:

    OK, apologies if this ends up being a sort of double post. Some possible e-tools for helping with this: Caringbridge is a website where you can set up an account and post health updates about your mom when you have them, there are varying levels of privacy and such, but you could make one and whenever anyone asks simply say to check the site for the latest info. Take them a meal is a nice website for scheduling meal help if that’s something that would be helpful for your Dad, you can suggest frequency and list dislikes and food allergies, people signing up to provide can state what they’re bringing and avoid accidental bringing of the same meal too close together. Also, if you search EPBOT blog for a Personal Emergency Guide, they have a suggestion for setting up a guide for how to actually be helpful to a person. I think the key to helping there is being specific – have your helpful church gossip say, oh, no need to ask about Mom just check the Caringbridge site (or is safe to assume is the same unless a new prayer request has gone out for her), but if you want to ask Dad how he is, or talk about weather/sports/interests go for it.

  10. Woman Writer said:

    This is pretty timely, if that is the word I want. Neighbor’s husband died Sunday and her grandson got so upset he overdosed on drugs and died the same day. They got married the year I was born. I want to DO SOMETHING. I feel so guilty for not. She called me Sunday and told me, I said how sorry I am, her grown children are over there throughout the day, she is alone at night as she won’t let them stay, but I have been agonizing over What To Do. I feel better reading this because I know it would irritate her into fits for me to call a lot. (Sunday she said several times, “I’m independent just like you” and I’m thinking I’m not THAT independent. Well, maybe I should think about changing.) I will do as several posters suggested and see if she wants to go to breakfast on perhaps Friday. Thanks as always, Captain and Captaineers.

    • Woman Writer said:

      Forgot to say she is a 60 year veteran of Weight Watchers and if I take food over to her, she will probably throw it at me.

      • Clarry said:

        If her grown children are with her during the day, she really might not need anyone with her at night. I suggest keeping an eye out for when the cars stop being there (signal that someone’s visiting). Then start dropping by (call first if yours in not a drop-by culture) and suggesting a walk in the sunshine with you. In fact, my bare bones necessity list for all caretakers in emergency situations and all primary mourners is that no matter what else is going on and how stressed you are taking care of everything, everyone gets: healthy meals (maybe not perfect, but something simple and healthy and not from a vending machine), some time for gentle exercise preferably outside (weather and common sense permitting), some time alone (this one is tricky, but if someone thrives on alone time when they’re not stressed and grieving, why shouldn’t they need alone time even more when they are), and some chance to sleep (again, maybe not perfect at home in a bed, but don’t neglect it when you think you need to be round the clock at the hospital). When I offer help, I wonder what on that list needs filling in and see if I can help fill it. I’ve been amazed at how many people are thrilled when I offer them a walk. If their house is filled with relatives paying condolence calls, the chance to go out with someone (so it’s supervised) who then DOESN’T insist on conversation, well, it can be a big help.

        • Woman Writer said:

          Good ideas!

        • VG said:

          “(this one is tricky, but if someone thrives on alone time when they’re not stressed and grieving, why shouldn’t they need alone time even more when they are)”

          +1 I’m someone who prefers a lot of alone time, and after my husband died, there was a point (surprisingly soon, maybe a week or so later) where I just wanted everyone to go away and leave me alone to process things/try to start setting up a new routine for my daughter. I knew they had only the best and kindest intentions, but I really needed that time on my own, even though it really worried some friends with different coping styles.

          • Yeah, that’s when having that one friend who can be the gatekeeper for you is soooo valuable! The one who can stand guard and let you have your alone time, while answering all the “how did it happen?” and “how is she holding up?” and even “Is there anything I can do?” questions.

            Offer to be the point person, and you will be an angel direct from heaven.

        • Sometimes alone-time support can look like mentioning a fun thing and a bit about why you find it fun. “I’ve been reading [fun thing unrelated to the current situation] and finding it very fun; I particularly like the characterization, thrilling space battles, and attention to fashion details”; “I found some [amazing yarn] and I love the way it knits up all soft and stripey!”; “I’ve been watching [kind reality tv show] and I’ve been thrilled over the amazing ways you can screw up a loaf of bread if you don’t have all the recipe details!” or “I’ve been immersed in [diverting clicky game] for the past two weeks; I like the way you fight battles by matching the colored gems.”

          They may not care for the specific thing that’s been delighting you, but they might take it as a recommendation, or remember something they’ve been meaning to do that would provide a little comfort and escape.

          • Brassica said:

            (Random derail:
            Azure Luidaeg, have you been reading Bujold? Because that sounds awfully Vorkosigan series to me! 💜)

        • Thanksforallthefish said:

          Agreed. But also my friend is a major introvert and her husband just died in a shocking car accident this spring. He was the one person she liked touching her…a month or so on and she admitted she is feeling touch-starved and needs more human contact. So…even though she’s never been a huger I’ve been making it a point to hug her tight every time I see her and she has appreciated it. YMMV. Be ready to adjust attention and contact accordingly. Don’t treat her as broken (my friend appreciates that I’ve actually brought my own petty problems to her to complain about because A.it’s a distraction and B. I’m not treating her as broken). I also second that you should ramp up your attention and visits once the first flood of people fade…that’s when it gets really isolating and lonely.

          • C said:

            How does she feel about pets? I have PTSD and volunteer with stray cats once a week. It’s amazing, gets me out of the house, and I feel like I’m paying it forward.

        • Lurker in the light said:

          So true. After my mom passed, I was back at work pretty quickly. My boss didn’t need me back, I just couldn’t be in a house full of mourners any more.

    • She might appreciate it if you spread the word to her acquaintances, so she doesn’t get shocked with a “How’s your husband?” question by a well-meaning acquaintance.

      Ask her what is irritating her most right now, and focus on helping with that.

  11. There’s a bit near the end of Egger’s “Hearbreaking work of staggering genius” where he talks about how people are forever asking him about his brother, and he talks in what I guess was an addendum (please forgive me; it’s been 15 years since I read it) where he mentions reading the stuff about this incessant asking at a book signing/reading. And in the subsequent QA session, an audience member asks about his brother.

    So – you are not alone. And thanks for the reminder for how to talk to people going through difficult situations, LW.

  12. K`shandra said:

    My husband is a 20+ year cancer survivor, and we dealt with this a LOT in our social circle when he was undergoing treatment. He gave me permission to answer as outlandishly as I saw fit – a favorite suggestion was “Oh, he died on the way over here, and I stuffed him in the trunk. Wanna see?” Mileage varies, of course, but depending on the people you’re dealing with, you may need something completely over the top like that to remind them that hey, you’re still a person with your own life, your own needs, your own everything. (And if nothing else, you now have the mental image of how they’d react to hopefully cheer you up.)

    Hang in there.

    • MoragLachlanMaclachlan said:

      This is brilliant.

      • What’s that line from “Silence of the Lambs”? Something about eating his liver with a bottle of wine?

        • Sarah said:

          Some fava beans and a nice chianti 😉

  13. MoragLachlanMaclachlan said:

    LW, I’m really sorry you and your Dad are experiencing this extra pressure and I’m very sorry about your mother’s health. It’s a rough situation.

    I really feel for your frustration and your Dad’s, and I send solidarity. I know where you are coming from.

    A while back my mother was not very well. I suddenly became extremely sick, and was in ICU for a long time, nearly died from the condition and from complications, spent fifteen months out of town, and managed to get home very frail and shellshocked. I had just arrived home when I ran into someone in the bookshop who knew all about this and had been in phone contact with my family and reading the prayer lists (my folks still have a strong faith community), well-meaning person, you know exactly the type. She said to me ‘Hello [Morag], how’s your mother?’

    I was fucking horrified. I paused and probably goggled slightly and answered the best I could but what the actual fuck.

    So, I hear you, and I’m very sorry your Dad’s experiences drove him from his parish, and I really understand why. I hope it is possible for him to gently establish some new connections or reestablish some old ones if that’s what he would like. But it is hard, and valid, and understandable, to be hurt and bewildered and pissed off when people look right past you and what you need. It doesn’t make them monsters, but it’s a difficult phenomenon to cope with.

    • One time, I read a story on Etiquette Hell, about something that happened at a funeral.

      A person came up to the siblings of the deceased (they were all still minors, at least, possibly actual children), and told them, “Now, you need to be very gentle with your parents, because you must realize they just lost their child, and they’re really hurting a lot!”

      The siblings looked at each other with a “What? And we’re not hurting for losing our beloved sibling?” look, and didn’t know how to respond to this adult who apparently thought they didn’t count.

      • MoragLachlanMaclachlan said:

        Gah!!! That is horrific.

      • Chip said:

        My soon-to-be-ex-spouse said something similar when my Dad was dying. I have a stressful (for me, not for her) relationship with my mom, and I had complained about something about how she was communicating. His reply was “well, her husband is in the hospital and she doesn’t know if he’s coming home.” But my Dad was also in the hospital and I didn’t know if he was coming home. And, you know, she can get a new husband, not a replacement, but someone else to be her partner, but I can’t get a new Dad.

        • Diziet Sma said:

          Nobody is replaceable. I’m a widow. I’m sure that someday I might meet another person who can be my partner but they will never be him. I would find it very difficult if someone suggested that his parents’ loss was greater because I might remarry (and I have heard this). Well, from my point of view, I could say that they still have each other, and two other children, while I have nobody. Where do the comparisons end? We are all hurting in unique ways. For me, that’s enough. I’m sorry that your ex said that to you because it was crass and didn’t acknowledge your pain, but please consider that your loss was not greater than hers – or lesser – but different, and each as profound as the other in different ways.

          • Chip said:

            I didn’t intend to compare, although, to be fair, there is some bitterness on my part towards my mother and her tendency to make my problems about her that may be leaking through. And some frustration that in both relationships, there was an expectation that I value the feelings of others over my own. So it was more expressing my upset that he was enforcing my consideration of her when I was venting to him while being dismissive or willfully unaware of my own feelings. In fact, he told me later that he got upset because I “yelled at him in public” when in reality, I had a moment of snappiness in the privacy of the car. So…in general…sorry for the feelings vomit…

      • twomoogles said:

        Yeah, this doesn’t surprise me. I lost my mom as a kid and had a ton of people tell me I needed to be extra nice to my dad, be OK with his behavior etc. This was especially terrible as my mom’s illness/death turned my already volatile father absolutely terrible and what he was doing/saying at home was really far into Not OK, that having other people constantly tell me I needed to help/support him…yeah, it wasn’t great.

        • Oh, man! Comparing losing a spouse to losing a parent, *while still a child!* is just really horrible!

          Frankly, it shouldn’t be compared, anyway, even when everyone is an adult, but to a CHILD?!

          And I’m so sorry your Dad went Not OK on you. To tell you that you need to forgive him and be extra nice, so that he doesn’t abuse you, poor half-orphan that you are, is just… I have no words for that.

  14. Jarred H said:

    “Mom’s the same. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you if you want to send a card/visit/call her up.”

    I really like this script. I don’t know if your Mom feels the same way, but for several years, my old church would ask my parents about me and even tell my parents to let me know they were thinking of me. But not a single person from that church attempted to make direct contact with me and I still have strong feelings about that.

    Like I said, OP’s mom may be just as happy no one does contact her directly. But if she does, then constantly “asking after her” without actually going to see her themselves is both inconsiderate to your father and (in my opinion at least) raises questions how sincere their concern for your mother is anyway.

  15. I love what you’ve all said already. Here’s another:

    It can be terribly difficult to repeat bad news to every sincerely trying-to-be-helpful person who asks.

    When my brother was struck by a car in 1968, he was in ICU for two weeks … and then died. During the whole two weeks, every day at work or school my parents, sibs and I were asked, “How’s your brother?”

    The first couple of days it felt like a comforting question. Then it started to be difficult to say, over and over again, “Holding his own, we think.” Then there were a few days of “the doctors say if he lives through the night, then maybe …” — which was ghastly to have to say by about the third time.

    And then he died. That’s when I learned that it was truly, nauseatingly, terrifyingly horrible to have to keep repeating, “He’s dead.” …”He died.” And then cope, repeatedly, with their reactions to that — each of them processing for the first time what I had been living with for a day or so, and hated anyway.

    MUCH better were the few conversations that began with “Great to see you!” and then continued with expressions of concern or condolence _for what I was going through_, and ended with a sincere offer of company, support, help, or diversion.

    • Thanksforallthefish said:

      Agreed. Came here to sort of say the same thing. My dear friend just lost her husband in a car accident on his birthday this spring. They were both in the car. People asking me about her or her about her all the time turns into this terrible repetition.

      She ultimately landed on a pretty good phrase for when people asked how she’s doing, “There’s no good answer to that.” said with a wry smile and sometimes followed by “I did x today” or “my rib is no longer broken” followed by subject change. When she has no spoons she just says “There’s no good answer to that so I’ve stopped trying” and walks away.

      The message is really clear.

    • Yes, on the part where you give them the bad news, and then they have to process it, and you … what? Comfort them? Instead of the other way around?

      I don’t like gossip, but spreading the news that someone died is, in my opinion, either not gossip, at all, or is, in fact, good gossip, because it means that the people hear the news away from the bereaved, and can process it away from the bereaved, and then face the bereaved fully informed, and able to jump right to, “How can I help?”

  16. “others might get the hint that if they bring up your folks you’re going to expect them to follow through in some way that requires actual effort.”

    This really cracked me up. Thanks, Captain!

  17. cathy said:

    My dad died about 2 years ago. When a group of ladies at church asked how my mother was I didn’t have an answer prepared so shocked them all by replying; ‘She is thoroughly enjoying herself.’ I had to make a mental note not to tell the truth next time, and used, ‘She is coping well, considering.’ from then on.

    Mum is now very frail, probably terminal, but carrying on. We are braced for sudden bad news, which could come any time, but hasn’t. It is surprisingly wearing. On the rare occasion I darken the door of my church now one of the ladies is sure to ask me how my mother is I usually say; ‘Still alive, thanks.’

    I live closest; there is a good chance that one day there will be a phone call from one of the neighbours, and I will be the one to have to go round, open the door and call, ‘Mum? … Mum?’ and go in to find her. I have had to do this a couple of times, but so far, she has been fine. Rather than explain all of that, I use the short version.

    I stopped attending my own church of 15 years long ago, when after a year the Vicar STILL came up to me every single Sunday and said breezily, ‘So, how is married life!!!’ After the first few; ‘Fine, thanks!’ replies I honestly didn’t know what to say and eventually gave up trying. That seemed to be literally the only thing he knew about me.

    Sometimes it is too much work to try to fit into the tiny little space other people want to squash us into.

    Using the Captain’s scripts would be good, but I have a tendency to switch alters, and some of them can’t speak. Quite literally, not a word. If my exit is clear I wait for everyone to be looking elsewhere and I leave. If the exit is blocked I stand there and look at the person talking, and smile, and wait for them to move and forget that I am there, and then I walk quietly away. I know ghosting is very impolite, but sometimes it is all I have.

  18. canadakate said:

    I feel you and your dad, LW. When my dad died almost three years ago, all my friends where I live kept asking me how my mom was–most of whom had never met her, or only met her once. No one ever asked me how i was coping. It was hurtful.

    I hope you can find get what you need from your community, especially one that should have your back and support you right now!

    • canadakate said:

      I’ll also add that my relationship with my mother is pretty rocky, and to be asked how she, but not I, was by people who knew that was doubly painful.

      • MoragLachlanMaclachlan said:

        Oh, I’m really sorry.

        • canadakate said:

          Thanks! 🙂

  19. n.b. said:

    A thing I’ve noticed when bad things have happened to/near me that are public knowledge: there are a lot of people in this world who sincerely think that talking about a sadness or fear makes it worse and that feelings are best ignored. I was raised in a “tell me about it; you’ll feel better” family, so it was strange to eventually discover that some people think asking how you are when they know you’re probably not great would be insensitive and harmful. Captain’s scripts are great because they direct concern to where it can do the most good since where that is, is not obvious to everyone in the same way.

  20. Vasha said:

    When someone is having troubles, my instinct is not to ask them about it, because I figure they’re probably sick of talking about it. But that’s a projection because I hate talking about myself, even with closest friends, and when someone asks me how I am, being glad they care gets lost in trying to find a short answer that’ll deflect further questions. So do you have suggestions for me for what to say to someone who’s having troubles, that’ll both let them know that I care how they’re doing, and also be clear that I’m leaving it open for them to either talk or not, whichever they prefer?

    • Formerly_Academical said:

      These days I ask outright, but only once to get that out of the way. “I know that you’re dealing with X. That must be tough. Are you one of those people who prefer to talk about anything else? I’m happy to do ‘anything else’ or just listen whenever you need and ear.” If it’s someone I know well enough to want to be a practical support I ask if there’s anything I can do and suggest a few things to get them thinking because I’m hopeless if put on the spot for specific “help” to know what would help. I always make it clear that the offer is open-ended for whenever they need a hand.

    • TootsNYC said:

      This is where I don’t really ASK.

      I make a statement of support and caring. “I’ve been thinking of you; this must be a tough time. I hope you are holding up / finding comfort / doing better.”

      Sometimes, if I’m the kind of relationship that they might talk to me about stuff, I’ll directly ask them what they want: “Would it help to talk about things, or should I distract you with other stuff?” (I don’t use this for the people I know at church, or the office–just the friends with whom I’m close enough that it wouldn’t be weird to think they’d find comfort in venting to me.)

      In fact, I’d love it if we could get people to remember that questions aren’t always polite.

  21. JMegan said:

    Oh, I wish I had had this advice when my husband was in Afghanistan with the army. It’s a pretty unusual thing where we are, so he was probably the only person that my colleagues had in their six-degrees-of-separation circle who did active service. So for an entire year, my social interactions all started with “how’s your husband?” – generally from people who had never met him. Kindly meant, but infuriating. It took about three days before I wanted to start answering “*I* am fine, thanks for asking!” Ugh.

    Anyway, on a less ranty and hopefully more practical note, a friend of mine who is having surgery just found a website called Sign Up Genius. So on top of the Captain’s excellent suggestions above, you can now create an entire list: “come over to play cribbage on Tuesday afternoon;” “drive him to his fish & chips dinner on Wednesdays;” “run the vacuum and the dishwasher on Thursdays;” and so on. Then you email it to anyone who has said “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” and let them sign up for whatever they want. It requires a bit of labour on your part up front, of course, but it takes the pressure off having to come up with something in the moment when you’re faced with a general well-wisher.

  22. Wow. I once walked into a completely different situation, with a similar problem.

    High School required community service, which included weekly visits to a home-bound woman. One day, I walked passed the home attendant without properly greeting her… and she told me in no uncertain that ignoring the person in front of you in order to talk with the sick person is beyond rude, entirely unacceptable.

    It sounds like both LW’s dad and then LW, have been turned invisible in the high floodlight of a family member’s illness. It isn’t polite to be blunt to your peers, and it is exhausting to be nibbled to death by well-meaning butterflies.

    Captain’s idea of telling one person – the pastor or the kindly helper – are spot on. I would add, talk to the church gossip if there is one who can, without making it cruel, spread the word to remember the human-in-place as well as the human-stuck-home.

  23. Britta said:

    I think a lot of these answers have missed the point of your question, which is: how to belong to a community which only seems to relate to you through the spectre of your mother’s illness.

    I think the idea of finding a new community that’s yours with no preconceptions of you is a good one. But if your mother is well enough for you to discuss this with her, I think you should. She might really like the fact that you go to her church so it might be worth putting up with this to make her happy. She might not mind what you do. She might be perfectly happy with you signing up for all of these ‘involve the community in her care’ suggestions; she might not. The community might not actually care to get involved – since it sounds to me like they haven’t been reaching out to your mom, beyond asking you and your dad these questions – and you should be ready for that. But I bet your mother could advise you on what she wants and what these people are like better than any of us.

    My ex has a bunch of long-term health problems and when he stopped really leaving the house I tried hard to keep up with his friends (who I had thought were our friends) on his behalf. But after a few times of spending the evening listening to them talk about him without 1) their making any efforts to include him in their lives 2) not asking after me, I told my ex I wouldn’t be doing that anymore. A while later they made a big effort! One night they took him for a drink at 7 pm so I was expecting him back at 11. At 5 am I woke up to him on the doorstep, wailing loud enough to wake the neighbors, because he couldn’t find his wallet, phone or keys (which were all in his coat). They had gotten him blind drunk and put him on a bus by himself, he’d fallen asleep and woken up lost and disoriented and convinced he’d lost his stuff, and walked through the night across our city to get home. It took him a full week to recover. I left some very angry voicemails that morning, which was the last time I spoke to that crew; none of them have spoken to me since, not even to apologize. Some friends they were. They cared about the fact that they had a friend with a problem, not the friend himself, and the evening of drinking was about their guilt, nothing else. I like to hope your church wouldn’t behave that way but if you’re feeling this frustrated maybe they are.

    I wish you luck in coping with this and everything else, and for the restoration of your mother’s health if possible and her well-being if not.

  24. rory said:

    Wow, I could basically have written this letter… except for not being a dude, not having kids, and being in a different religion. My mom is sick. My mom is *never getting better*. At this point, we’re just trying to prevent her from getting much worse and to slow it down, but this isn’t usually successful.

    She has been this way for 15+ _years_.

    And honestly, a lot of times, I want to talk about *something else*. I don’t want to deal with the emotions about my mom. Especially in the context of small talk at my synagogue. It’s just emotional whiplash, constantly, especially because I have a terrible relationship with my mother.

    I would say things like “she’d love to have visitors” or whatever and some people did visit, but… it’s like, if you really cared, you’d talk to my mom or visit or whatever. Performing caring to me in lieu of other social interactions is just not helpful to anyone.

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