#1369: “Is there a polite way to tell my mother-in-law that she will, someday, die?”

Dear Captain,

My MIL has always been very nice and welcoming to me, although I don’t feel particularly close to her. Lately I have been driven to distraction by the way she seems convinced that she will live forever. She is turning 80 in June, and she is in only okay health. Every time we Zoom with her or see her in person (frequently, as we have a young and adorable grandchild), she makes some statement that presumes she’s going to be in great health for at least another decade. Just today, she was talking about volunteering at the hospital, and it was “some people find the palliative care department upsetting, but I’m fine with it–maybe in another 10 years it will hit closer to home!” She has literally said “I’m going to live to 97” multiple times in my hearing.

I’m sensitive about this because my own father died very suddenly seven years ago, when he was in his late 60s (my MIL knows this). It feels very clear to me that we all die and it could happen any time, and the way my MIL goes on seems both callous and jinx-y. I get really upset when she starts talking about how little she and my FIL have planned for old age (they’re vaguely thinking of downsizing, their wills are maaaybe updated, and there has been zero discussion with my husband about what they expect to happen to his younger special needs sibling, who currently lives with them). She literally laughs at attempts to discuss this stuff, like it’s a joke.

I don’t want to tell her that this bothers me, because right after my dad died, she did a lot of coming really close and staring into my eyes and saying “you must be so upset about your dad.” I REALLY don’t want to start that behavior up again. My husband had my back about that stuff (and any other times she’s been weird TO me), but for him, my getting annoyed that she thinks she’ll live forever is a me-problem, not a her-problem. Maybe he’s right? I would love for her to take end of life planning more seriously, but really I need a better way of handling my reaction to these constant comments of hers. I don’t just want to start croaking “Death comes for us all!” in the middle of brunch, so what do I tell myself to keep calm?


Harbinger Daughter-in-Law

Dear Harbinger,

I preserved your email subject line as the post heading as it is truly A+ work.

Short answer: No, there’s no way for you to “politely” discuss this with your mother-in-law (MIL) and your husband is probably right about the feelings she’s calling up in you being yours to manage.

Long answer: It’s not that the feelings aren’t valid; there’s so much here about grief for your dad, envy that he didn’t get all these years with his grandchild, envy that she “gets” to be so blithe about all of it, and legitimate worry about how her lack of planning will impact your little family down the road. (Even if the feelings weren’t valid, they are happening, so you might as well deal with them.)

But your husband is right in that your feelings – and whatever actions you take in response to them –  are the only piece any of this that you can actually control. Your MIL is 80 years old. Assume that she knows what it’s like to be elderly, she’s seen what her peers have gone through, she’s opened the paper and seen her childhood playmates in the obituaries section. This also may be her coping mechanism in the face of all the fear and the loss during a mass death and disabling event that is still ongoing. If she’s seeking reassurance? If she’s in denial? Either way, her life and eventual death belong to her, and you’re not going to be able to tell her a single thing about it.

Where I come in, is, if you can’t change the situation, can you make it a little easier on yourself?

With that in mind, I will suggest a few strategies.

1) “Ha, I hope you’re right about that!” 

If your MIL does in fact live to be 97 and maintain enough of her physical health and faculties to spend her time doing all the things she wants to do, wouldn’t that actually be pretty awesome? Can you find a way to wish her the future that she wants for herself, or, at least act as if you do when she brings it up? I don’t really believe in jinxes, but if I did, I’d want her to cheat Death, poke Fate in the eye, and get away with everything. To quote the philosopher Atticus: “I hope to arrive at my death late, in love, and a little drunk.” 

Since these topics and conversations upset you, it’s probably best if you disengage. Cut these conversations as short as you can and make them as boring as possible. Sometimes that might mean absenting yourself, putting your husband in charge of all Grandma Zoom Time while you take a break or get some chores done. Other times, it might mean finding some pleasant and anodyne response to repeat, something that efficiently completes the social circuit in the expected way, removing the need to dig into the topic more deeply. (And then absenting yourself). For this  purpose, I want you to try out something like “Ha, I hope you’re right!” 

Now, there are times when actions like absenting yourself or changing the subject  are meant to actively communicate discomfort, return awkwardness to sender, teach the person a lesson, and/or enforce a boundary. Like, you’ve tried persuasion, it failed, so finally you tell the person, “If you bring up X topic again, I’ll leave.” They bring up X. You leave. They learn that you will follow through, they have a little think, and hopefully change their behavior as a result.

This is NOT that. This is hearing “Maybe in 10 years the palliative care thing will bother me, but you know I’m going to live to be 97!” and you saying, “Nice, I hope you’re right about that!” or “97? May we all be so lucky” or “Only 97? Don’t be a quitter, Grandkid expects you to make it to at least 100” in the breeziest tone you can manage, and then asking if anybody needs anything from the kitchen while you’re up, so you don’t have to stick around for the answer. You’re not trying to jolt her back to reality or correct her, you’re trying to make a socially acceptable dodge. Two entirely different things.

2) Unpack your feelings so they don’t unpack themselves. 

You’re still grieving for your dad. How could you not be? ❤ If you’ve never sought therapy or it’s been a long time since you have, “My MIL is in denial about aging, it’s bringing up all these feelings about my Dad’s sudden death, and I’m also worried about a future where nobody’s really planned for the possibility of getting sick or what’s going to happen to my Sibling-in-Law (SIL) by the way, the pandemic is still killing so many people even if everyone is bored with it” is definitely a “big enough” problem to take to a compassionate, neutral listener.

If therapy is not an option, write about it in a journal. Contact a trusted friend you know that you can lean on. Find a grief support group. However you can, get it all out of you in controlled, deliberate ways so that it’s not on the verge of exploding out of you whenever your MIL gets under your skin.

I predict that a lot of stuff is going to come out of therapy (or making a plan to write/talk about it in some fashion), and one thing you’ll be prompted to do is to sort out your own plans for what happens if something happens to you or your husband. Which leads me to  my next practical suggestion.

3) Put thine own paperwork in order.

Work with your husband to make sure that your own wills are up to date, that your plans for what happens to your child are in writing, that you have all the necessary and useful insurances in place in case something unexpected happens to either of you. Think of it as doing the boring, necessary part now, when everyone is able to make decisions, so that you don’t have to invent it from scratch later. You can’t control what your in-laws will do, but you can actually make sure that you’re doing all you can to take care of business.

Going through this process yourselves is the perfect vehicle to talk to your husband about some of your fears about what happens if his parents die or become incapacitated. Do they have plans for his sibling? Do they have insurance and money set aside in case they need long-term care or assisted living? Do they have medical directives, funeral plans, cemetery plots, an assigned executor or attorney? Does he know what any of this looks like, or where to even find it? Does he have other siblings besides the one you mentioned and do they know? What does your SIL want for their own future?

If his parents don’t have any of this in place, what’s are the potential costs or consequences to both of you if they die or become incapable of making their own decisions? “If MIL hasn’t budgeted or made arrangements for SIL’s housing and care in case something happens, should we be setting aside $X/month in our budget now? What resources would be available for their care from the state? Can we afford to set aside money for SIL and also build our kid’s college fund?”  Your in-laws plans are pretty much your in-laws business, but there are areas that their choices might impact your husband, and by extension, you and your child.

I think these worries are all sprinkled throughout your “YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LIVE FOREVER, RIGHT?” feelings when your MIL is breezy about the future, but spelling it out this way gives your husband a foundation for going to his parents and saying,

  • “Hey, Parents, Harbinger and I just did all of our estate planning, and boy did it suck, I get why you never want to talk about it. Still, can you and me sit down one Saturday morning very soon and go through it? I’ll show you our in-case-of-emergency folder, you show me yours, then we’ll put everything back in the drawer and eat something tasty.” 
  • “I know, it’s the worst, but I don’t want anyone to be blindsided the way we were when Harbinger’s dad went so sudden. We want to make sure that we won’t leave an expensive legal mess for anyone, and we want to make sure that we’re able to honor your wishes and make sure that SIL will be okay. If you can take a few hours to show & tell what you have in mind, then we can stop talking about it until you’re 97.” 

He can ask. They can joke, like they always do. He can ask again. “Please, the thought of losing you someday is so upsetting, I don’t want to think about it! But I want to make sure that you can always live the life that you want, right up until the end, and to do that, I need to know some things sooner rather than later.” 

4) Your husband’s family = Your husband’s job to wrangle. 

If you’ve handled your own Scary Unknowable Future paperwork and decision-making to the best of your ability, done your best to wrangle your feelings about your dad, and found a polite, mostly pleasant way to interact with your MIL most of the time, then you’ve done what you can do. The rest is up to your husband. Don’t let this default to being your job, it’s good for literally no one. He is both best equipped and best place to be the parental ambassador to his side of the family.

Oh, before I forget:  It would be okay to admit to yourself and those of us at CaptainAwkward.com that you don’t like your MIL all that much right now and would like to interact with her less, even if she weren’t unintentionally pushing your buttons about this one sensitive thing. It’s great that she’s a nice, welcoming person, but if she’s stressing you out, intentionally or unintentionally, then let her eat crackers for a while! Let your husband take the lead in maintaining that relationship, and tag in when you are actually both willing and able.