How to hide brother's destructive life from dying mom?

 
 
Updated 10/24/2011 12:01 AM

Q. My brother has undiagnosed PTSD and is moving through his pain by abusing alcohol. Having already lost one career due to a DUI, he is in full denial and on a crash course for losing his wife and his life.

We have recently learned that our mother is terminally ill. My brother plans to come for a visit in November.

The only gift I can give my mother now is a sense that her children will be OK. If my brother comes to town in his current state, it will rip her to pieces. How do I start?

A. You start by accepting that you can't make a gift of something that isn't yours to give.

Your brother's life is his to save. You can urge him to get help; you can try to coordinate your efforts with his wife to improve your chances of nudging him into seeking a diagnosis and appropriate care; you can attend Al-Anon meetings; you can call the NAMI help line at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or find a support group at www.nami.org; you can try (repeat: try) to orchestrate his visit with an eye to minimizing the stress on your mother, say by scheduling visits for when she is most alert or comfortable.

You can also contact your local hospice provider to see what support resources they offer, both for you and for your mom. You'll find that self-destructive tendencies in the families of the terminally ill are not unexplored terrain.

What you cannot do is scrub your brother of distress and present him to your mom as a worry to cross off her list. All you will likely accomplish is to add a worry to your list, which will radiate to your mother as a reason to fret about you.

Please focus your energy on providing the comfort devoted children are ideally suited to provide. Some of that will be logistical, like acting as intermediary with doctors and other professionals, and as link to loved ones beyond her physical reach. The rest will be emotional, and you can bring her peace just by caring about her needs and especially about her stories, assuring her that she matters.

If your mother is looking for assurance that her son will be OK, then she'll be able to find some of that in your strength. She will see that her family still has a center, a place for her troubled son to go when he's ready. That's a gift you can give.

Q. Sister 1 got divorced three years ago after 26 years of marriage. Her husband, the choir director at their church, cheated on her with another, married woman in the choir (my sister was also in the choir). Then he insinuated all kinds of terrible things about my sister and why they got divorced. Ex-husband and the other woman are now married. No one in the family has had any contact with him since the divorce.

Sister 1's daughter is getting married in two weeks. At a wedding shower a few weeks ago, ex-husband actually had the gall to approach Sister 2 and hug her! She was so shocked and horrified she couldn't respond.

I recently saw my niece and suggested she tell her dad not to approach me, let alone try to hug me, at the wedding. Sister 1 says niece is angry with me for "putting her in the middle" and that he's "still her dad" and she doesn't want to have to say anything to him.

I say she's an adult, it's her wedding, and if her dad is too stupid to figure out that his life may be at risk if tries to be all chummy with our family, then it's not too much to ask that she give him a clue -- a simple, "Hey, Dad, the aunts are still pretty peeved, might want to steer clear" is all. Thoughts?

A. I say you're an adult, it's your opinion of your ex-brother-in-law, and if you're too confrontation-averse to deliver unpleasant messages in person (Hyperbolic ha-ha death threats? That's all you've got?), then it's not too much to ask that you keep a bride -- and daughter -- out of a battle that has absolutely nothing to do with her.

Since your niece chose to express her anger and delineate her boundaries through her mother instead of directly to you, the early signs are that the family's communication style has been passed down to her intact. Too bad. But, that doesn't mean it's too late to try painting a few new spots on this leopard. Call your niece and apologize for dragging her into your fit of pique at her dad.

And when you do see the ex-brother-in-law? No scenes. Just, calmly, "I'm sorry -- I'm not ready to act as if everything's fine." Your gift to the bride.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011 The Washington Post$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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