How do we deal with my father-in-law's denial that his wife is dying?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 25, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother-in-law has been in the hospital for two and a-half months. After three bypasses and a value repair, she is in a long-term care hospital with a ventilator, feeding tube, and diaper. She cannot get off the vent and is now not responding much and cannot even lift herself up alone. My father-in-law is in denial and thinks she is coming home soon. Her heart stopped and she was gone for more than three minutes but they brought her back. We now feel that was an injustice to her, but her husband said to keep bringing her back if that happens again. We feel it is not fair to her to have this continue.

Expert Answers

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

Unless someone else has been authorized to make decisions for your mother-in-law's care in an advance directive or other legal document, doctors will look to your father-in-law for decisions about her care, and it sounds as if he is not ready to let her go.

It also sounds as if your husband and his siblings are having a hard time witnessing this slow death, and what they see as a loss of dignity. By now, that meeting with the doctors may have led to a course of action that would both honor your father-in-law's difficulty in saying goodbye to his wife while also honoring his wife’s diminished quality of life and her inevitable death.

Sometimes denial can be broken when a more objective professional says the exact same thing that a family member has said earlier. So, if the doctors responsible for your mother-in-law's care are clear that there is no hope for this woman, your father-in-law might hear and surrender to that reality more swiftly. If he persists in his denial, there may be nothing else you can do except share amongst yourselves about how you’re feeling: not just the sadness, but the powerlessness, too.