Dear Family Advisor

My dad's dying, and Mom is ignoring it.

Last updated: Apr 06, 2010

My dad has terminal brain cancer. The doctor said that if we're lucky, he has a year, but most likely less, and that in the end he won't know us. My parents haven't made any plans for hospice, a funeral, or a plot. Every time I bring it up Mom acts like I want Dad to die. Of course I don't, but I think we should sit down as a family and talk about these things.

Mom wants to act like life is normal and ignore the whole thing. She doesn't even want me to say the word "hospice" because she thinks that's giving up. How do I convince them that by considering these issues now, it'll make things easier when the time comes? I'd rather not spend the last weeks and months together scrambling and wondering what Dad would have wanted.

Each of us responds to bad news in our own way. You and your mom have different personalities. It's important to separate your own emotions from hers.

My mom and I couldn't have been more different in the way we approached a problem, for example. She had a nip-it-in-the-bud, type A personality. Not doing something immediately made her feel nervous and worried. I'm more laid-back and like to feel my way into it; starting right away makes me feel pressured and rushed.

Also, she's losing her spouse -- her life partner, friend, and confidant. You're losing your dad, who brought you into the world and guided you. Both roles are important, but they're different.

Denial and avoidance are protective emotions. They mean your mom's not ready to deal with all this yet -- it makes your dad's death too real for her. Respect that. Give her time to process what's going on.

Maybe she never will. But remember that many people die suddenly and all the end-of-life details eventually get sorted out. (My type B personality is talking here.) Hospices and funeral homes deal with these matters every day and can help your family efficiently make the necessary decisions later. It may be more chaotic than you'd like, but don't let your differences in approach rob you of this precious time together.

While you can't force your mom to accept your dad's passing, you can do your own "work" toward this. Sometimes we focus on what someone else should do -- or isn't doing -- as a way to deflect our own emotions. What do you need to do for you? What can you do -- now -- to make your dad's last days, weeks, or months on Earth meaningful and easier for you and him?

Give yourself some time to really feel what's going on. We often hide behind "busy" to keep us from admitting just how scared and alone we feel. Go for walks, talk to friends, meet with a spiritual advisor (even if you haven't attended services in years, they're still glad to have you stop by).

Perhaps you'd like to write your dad a letter about what he means to you, start organizing family pictures, or compile a video presentation about him. You might want to plant a tree, get a wind chime that reminds you of him, or visit his childhood home. Do things that will always remind you of this quiet and profound time with your dad.

Spend time just hanging out with your parents -- together and individually.

Grief doesn't come all at one time. It comes in waves. So be easy on yourself -- and your mom.

I highly recommend hospice -- but yes, for some people, that's a scary word. Your mom may be digging in her heels because she has preconceived notions that aren't true about [what is hospice] ( Share with her all the [benefits of hospice care] ( Most important -- it's à la carte. She can choose what she wants and needs, and add or subtract elements as the situation changes.

I know you're eager to address these end-of-life details, but you may get better results if you don't start off with those big and scary words (hospice, advance directive, living will), if those make your mom clam up. Try something like this: "Let's make sure Daddy's comfortable and not in pain -- I'll be glad to help with this."

I wouldn't suggest trying to "make" your mom do anything right now. She needs to relax and trust you. Ironically, we stop being stubborn when others give us the space we need and stop trying to force us to see it their way. She may at any time change her mind -- about anything. Be there and be ready for her.

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