Wednesday, June 22, 2016

When an In-Law Has Cancer

It's been ten days since my mother-in-law passed away, but I think this information may be useful to someone in a similar situation. I wrote it before she passed, so it's in present tense and I can't bring myself to change it. This post isn't elegant and it isn't meant to be a rant or outpouring, so here's my apology if that's how it sounds. The intent of this post is to provide a real-deal account of what you can expect life to be like when an in-law is diagnosed with cancer. (Obviously not everyone will have the same experience, but here's one account...)

Where do I even begin? When your mother-in-law has cancer, you're put in the extremely odd and uncomfortable position of "removed supporter." You're family, but you're not immediately family like the sons and daughters and grandchildren are. You're devastated that this is happening to someone you love and that your spouse has to watch their parent deal with this nightmarish, slow, and painful illness. But you're also aware that it's not your parent. It's not your grandparent. My mother-in-law loves me (and I love her), but I think her priority is spending time with her kids and grandkids. While my husband fills the role of primary caregiver, my role is secondary caregiver. Sometimes I do things for my mother-in-law, but most of the things I do are to provide care for my husband, so that he can provide quality care for his mother.

A lot of the support I provide comes in the form of keeping life normal and taking care of "life stuff." As the spouse, I'm the one who makes sure the house is clean, food is cooked, the kids make it to school, and bills are paid. I keep our life on track and keep things running smoothly. Watching someone go through chemo is terrible and knowing how it could end is overwhelming. Basically, I'm the rock while everyone else is dealing. That doesn't mean I pretend nothing is going on or that I ignore everyone's grief. It means that when my husband breaks down, I have to put my grief/bad day/stress/tiredness to the side and provide a strong shoulder for him. It's not easy. It's not easy to swallow your feelings and to understand that right now they are less important than your spouse's grief. When the kids have been terrible all day and I did not sleep the night before and I still have to put the clean clothes away and make dinner.. it's not easy to suck it up and get it all done so that my husband can focus on taking care of his mom.

I also run interference between my son and my husband. Our daughter is too young to speak or understand the situation but our son is (almost) five. He doesn't understand the concept of death (it's not something we've had to deal with previously) and sometimes his comments (while completely innocent) can be abrasive. For example, my husband spends almost all of his free time at my mother-in-law's house. When my son isn't allowed to go, he'll ask, "Because vovó going to die?" It's too difficult for my husband to sit down and explain this with him, so that's fallen on me. I know the question hurts my husband, so when my son says something like that, I'll quietly take him into his bedroom and we'll have (again) a talk about her situation and how it could end. And I remind him that saying things like that hurts Papai because that's his mommy and he loves her very much. And I know if it does happen, managing the kids' grief will fall on me as well. I know my husband won't be strong enough and that's okay.

I'm also hear to listen. I remind him that I love him and support him. I tell him that if he wants to cry or scream or vent, my shoulder is available judgement-free. I reassure him that he has the right to feel any way he needs and that it's not a reflection of his masculinity. When his mom has had a particularly bad day and he's visibly overwhelmed/exhausted/depressed/anxious, I provide a comfortable place for him to relax and de-stress. We've been dealing with this for almost a year and there are only two ways it will end. I live in daily fear of the negative outcome because I know the consequence will be even worse than what we're dealing with now. My husband already lost his father after a long battle with stomach cancer and chemotherapy and it led to his mental breakdown. I think his reaction this time would be even worse and I dread having to be the rock because I know it will be horrific. I hope that doesn't sound selfish, but I'm mentally and emotionally preparing myself for it.

Here are two resources, if you find yourself in the same position:
For Spouses, Families, and Friends -
For Family and Friends -

As a follow up, I will add that my husband has handled the loss much, much better than I expected. I think a part of him is relieved that he was able to spend time with her and that the suffering is over. My son still hasn't quite grasped the concept of death, even after our talks, the wake, and the burial. We're not pushing it on him. We did tell him that he can talk to her any time he wants because she's in his heart and watching over him. 

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