Dear Family Advisor

Getting care has turned my sister into a taker!

Last updated:

May 24, 2011

My sister has suffered two rounds of breast cancer and her husband just died of a heart attack. She's turning 50 and although she's been handed two awful blows, I feel like she's turned into a "taker" -- she acts like she's 80. She wants to apply for disability and seems to think that people should do for her constantly. She's literally got her church group and friends on speed dial for every little thing.

Yes, she's still going to chemo and I know she needs the help, but it's more the way she asks and how she acts. I don't think this is good for her. I want to be there for her, but I feel like she's using me and everyone else. How do I help her get past this "poor pitiful me" stage and remember that life can still be good?

You're right -- your sister has fallen into a mentality that can be tough to break out of. Takers operate from fear. They're afraid that if they don't latch onto others, no one will pay attention to them. You won't be able to convince your sister of anything through reasoning, so don't try. The assurance she so desperately needs doesn't come from someone else; she has to find it within, and that's going to take some soul-searching work and acknowledgement that she is, in fact, expecting too much from others. The only thing you can "fix" or control is your way of interacting with her, so that you aren't subconsciously contributing to her "taker" mentality.

If your sister isn't seeing a therapist or isn't in a bereavement group, do all you can to encourage her to find a safe place where she can share her heart with people who understand what she's going through. She needs to acknowledge these two huge blows, as you said, and right now she can't really express her shock and loss or feel that anyone understands her. She may have to hit bottom before she can begin to rebuild her life. Remember also that being sucked into a never-ending medical vortex, through chemo and other treatments, really does change how you see yourself. It throws you into a world where everyone cares for you -- so it's too easy to buy into that belief system.

Try really listening. People say more than they realize. We reveal our fears, doubts, and hurts -- but it takes a patient and insightful person to pick up on these clues. You may have become so frustrated with her that you no longer hear her cries for validation. Realistically, it may take her a couple of years, or even longer, to pull through all of this. This is a lot to process, and there's no timetable for grief.

In the meantime, be honest with her. When she's being demanding, say so. When she's asking too much, don't do it. If she gets mad, so what. When she's being negative or ugly, tell her. You're her sister, and family gets to say things that others dance around. Always assure her that you love her, but simply tell her that it's unhealthy and unrealistic to expect this from you, or from anyone -- and then change the subject.

Praise "good behavior" as well. When she's giving, thank her. When she listens to you and how your day went, thank her. Be her example. Be active and healthy and involved in your own life and your own community. Pull her out of her world, instead of allowing her to suck you into hers.