Dear Family Advisor

Dad's in hospice and I'm afraid this is our last Christmas together -- but my brother isn't even planning to come into town!

Last updated: Dec 13, 2011


Dad has just been accepted into hospice, after being diagnosed with lung cancer in July. I've moved him into our spare bedroom and taken a leave of absence at work. I'm hoping we can at least get through the holidays and cherish the little time we have left.

My brother, on the other hand, is acting as if nothing is wrong. He says he's already booked a trip to the Bahamas with his girlfriend and the tickets are nonrefundable, so he's decided to go ahead and then visit Dad when he gets back.

I can't believe how callous he's being! I haven't even told Dad. I want him to be as calm and comfortable as possible. Should I tell him, or not even bring it up? I'm not sure how he'll be doing in three weeks.

Should I talk to my brother and let him know clearly how serious this is -- and that this is probably our last Christmas together?

Yes, this is the right time to be extremely clear with your brother. Tell him that Dad is dying, and that even if he thinks his father will be around when he gets back, he might not be. Tell your brother he needs to think about others right now and realize that he's a part of a family that needs him.

This may make no difference to your brother at all, but you'll feel better because you'll know that you've done all you can. Then let it go. After that, just be with your dad and make this a meaningful Christmas together.

It sounds as if your brother is in deep denial, and he probably cares a lot more than he can share with you or even admit to himself. I hope that's the case. Most of the time, people who act this way are holding onto old hurts. They're being given the opportunity to let go and make peace, but they choose not to. Sometimes they just can't. We're all on a different timetable when it comes to working out our issues. Some of us get therapy, read books, talk to friends, and choose to work toward a place of healing and acceptance. Others choose to stay angry, deny, avoid, blame, and isolate.

Death and dying are pretty scary for most everybody, but some people are absolutely petrified. They can't seem to face it, they can't talk about it, and they sure as heck can't be around it. Be patient, listen, and see if you can figure out where your brother's coming from. If he's scared, encourage him slowly to come around and assure him you'll be there every step of the way.

Sometimes our siblings will respond to a strong and clear voice of reason, while other times that just pushes them away. Only you know which way your brother is likely to lean -- but he may surprise you. Say your piece, then let it go. Don't give him more to rebel against by pushing too hard. Just create the loving holiday atmosphere that you, your family, and your dad need.

If your brother does come around, but not on Christmas or on your timetable, be OK with that. He may feel that he's being pressured, and he may rather come another day or time. Maybe a phone call is all the two of them need. If your deepest hope is that your brother and dad connect before your dad passes, then be grateful for however and whenever that happens.

The toughest part will be choosing not to harbor resentment toward your brother, but try to look at it this way: Wouldn't that mean doing to your brother just what he's doing to your dad? Not getting over old hurts, not coming to a place of peace and "loving what is," not staying out of the part that isn't yours? Try to reach out to your brother and remind him that you love him too, even when he's being difficult. And know that your dad might not be as worked up about this as you are, or because of his condition he might not be as aware that your brother isn't coming around. If so, that's OK too.

I've found that some of my greatest moments of insight and forgiveness came after my loved one died. Relationships aren't ever really over. They still have much to teach us, and I hope you can hold your dad and your brother in a place of such love in your heart that you can help them both with whatever is ahead.

Take time to jot down a few ideas that will make the next weeks or months special for you and your dad. Do you want to declutter the room he's in, put up some photos of loved ones, sit and read to him, or just light a candle and enjoy some holiday music together? Try not to get so caught up in the duties of caregiving and family negotiating that you forget to just be with your dad. Hold his hand, watch a ball game, or make his favorite dessert.

Rely on hospice to guide you as well as your dad. When your heart is heavy, call a friend, go for a walk, or slip into a service if your faith brings you comfort. Wish your brother well, but don't let his decisions about Christmas or hospice or your dad put such an angry or somber mood on the next few weeks that it discolors this tender and poignant time. It's easy to get caught up in what your brother is or isn't doing and forget that the only person you change is yourself.