I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

What happened to all my dad’s money?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 19, 2008

He remarried, he moved, and now all his savings are gone!


Dear Cary,

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas where my father gave me news that made me furious. I’m not really prone to anger, which makes this even more surprising.

My mother died in 1999, and my father soon moved to California and remarried a short time after. I had reservations about his wife, but I kept my mouth shut out of diplomacy. I was just glad to see him happy.

He told me this past year his marriage had been difficult, and he had moved out of their house. During my trip to see him last week, he explained that their house was now up for sale. With some prodding, I also found out his life savings is now gone, and that his wife and her family took advantage of my father’s kindness over the course of seven years. Some of this financial help was in money lent to his wife’s son (which was paid back to his wife, not my father), down payments on their house, and the purchase of a car (which has been given to his wife outright). On top of this, when my father needed other forms of support from her family, they didn’t offer the least bit of help. Now, their house is up for sale, and I doubt his wife will give my father his share without a fight. The trouble is, my father is not a fighter, and though he says he is concerned about all of this, his demeanor says otherwise.

First of all, I feel betrayed by my father. I will admit my own selfish reasons — money he threw freely at his new family could have helped me. I wouldn’t have asked him for money unless it was an absolute emergency, but the fact that he didn’t even think of me in this matter hurts. Second, I am furious at his wife and her family. I can’t understand how so many people could take money from one man and then be so unconcerned when he leaves their life. Thirdly, I am angry at myself for not catching this sooner. Would it have helped had I told my father that I had a bad feeling about his wife? We’d talk on the phone about once a month, but he never brought any of this stuff up. My father is 70, and the fact that his life savings is now gone due to his naiveté and a family of parasites doesn’t really seem to bother him. This makes the situation even more difficult for me.

I’m not sure what my question is — I found out about all of this a few days ago and maybe just needed to vent. I mean, I can call a lawyer on my father’s behalf, but the money he gave his wife and her family is gone. I think the best he could hope for is to get half of the money from the sale of the house. Also, I want to call his wife and tell her off and let her know I’ll be fighting to get what’s owed to him, but I realize this may complicate things legally. I want nothing to do with her or her family aside from this financial issue.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Maybe my question is the universal one: What do I do and how do I go on?

Where’s the Money?

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Where’s the Money?

Remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

In the swirl of emotion and drama, when it appears that your father has been robbed, that he is a helpless and passive victim of his second wife and her children, when you are tearing your hair out because he will not lift a finger in his own defense, remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

His needs were expensive, as it turns out. But he got them met. And now he is broke. It’s unfortunate but there it is.

Some needs we do not like to admit we have. After a long marriage, a man may not know how to fix himself a sandwich or wash a shirt. He may not know how to sit with himself alone in a room crowded with thoughts and feelings. He may not know how to make new friends, or cry, or walk through crushing grief with a high head. He may not know how to tell anybody how frightened and alone he feels without his wife. He may not know how to ask for help.

But he knows how to give away his money.

Your dad used his money to meet his needs. And now it is gone. It was a real need he had, and he met it the only way he knew how.

We do not always spell out our needs, especially the ones that are deep. Our needs may be perverse or trivial yet they are real. We may have a need, for instance, to appear powerful and nonchalant, untroubled and above it all. We may have a need to feel the indebtedness of others. We may need to be secretive and not tell anyone what we are feeling. That is a need, but it is a need that is a surface need, covering a deeper need. There are other surface needs masking deeper needs. If the gas gauge on your truck is on E, maybe you don’t like the feeling that gives you. Your surface need is to deal with that needle. Maybe you break the glass and push the needle up until it says F. That might make you feel better. But it won’t solve the problem. You need gas. We often get our needs met without solving the problem. Rather than meeting some needs, we need to interpret those needs, or transform them, by digging to the roots — fear of abandonment, fear of being ridiculed, fear of feeling weak and out of control. And then we deal with those deeper needs by building better foundations — a stable financial situation and stable relationships.

One tragic way we deal with fear of losing our money is, paradoxically, to keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of running out of money, we keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of being taken advantage of, we keep giving our money away. In this way, fear of the money running out makes the money run out.

We are accustomed to thinking of money as something we use to meet our needs. One way to deal with that is to turn that around and place ourselves at the service of our money. We can say, OK, as of today, now I meet the needs of my money. What does my money need? It needs to be taken care of! It needs to multiply. It wants to multiply! It wants to earn interest! It wants to be put to productive use!

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That’s a good thing to do with things that need nourishing and care. We place ourselves at the service of those things. Creativity, for instance. When we place ourselves at the service of our creativity, it blooms. When we keep asking it to provide for us, it dries up.

There is another angle. Yes, we use our money to get our needs met. And our needs often mask other needs. But the other angle is: People come into our lives and use our money to get their needs met. They have needs and we have needs and there is an exchange of money and need, emotion and need.

It is a common tale: The wife dies, the husband remarries, the new wife takes his money. This happens over and over and over.

And then, when all the money is gone and the second wife is gone, you begin to meet some of your dad’s needs. Your dad is lonely, weak, confused, sad, in need of a sandwich and a fresh shirt perhaps. You begin to meet his needs. The relationship changes. It is painful.

So now we come to the concrete section where you take action. I suggest that you do indeed contact a lawyer and take whatever other concrete steps you can take to get the facts and ensure that your father gets any and all money that is due him. Do not delay. What you need, first and foremost, is a complete accounting of your father’s financial condition and legal status. As to his legal status: Is he married but living apart? Is he planning to get a divorce? What is his status? As to his financial condition: What are his sources of income? What are his assets? Go through all his papers and figure out what his situation is.

This will not be easy.

If it were as simple as saying to your father, “Dad, I want to go through all your financial activities over the past few years so I can understand where your money went, and help you control your money in the future,” and if he would say, “Ah, that sounds like a splendid idea, here are the keys to my file cabinets, and here are all my tax returns, and here are my letters, and the deeds, and mortgage statements, and here is a record of the private arrangements I have made with various of my wife’s family members, and here is my checking account, and, by the way, why don’t you become a signatory to my checking account so you can monitor all the checks I write?” well, that would be nice, no?

But how likely is that? More likely, I would think, your efforts to become involved in your father’s financial dealings will be met with obstacles that range from suspicion, covert resistance and apparent lack of interest to outright hostility and stonewalling. It is a tremendous emotional change for a father to admit that he has maybe made some mistakes or been taken advantage of. It is a tremendous change for him to admit that he now has to let his children look into his affairs, and possibly criticize or question his judgment.

You have to look in private places. You have to get permission. You have to ask for things you have never asked for. Or you have to snoop. You have to ask other relatives for information. You have to ask people your father has dealt with for information about those dealings. You have to talk about and understand financial arrangements and real estate transactions that you have no expertise in. It is hard.

And this is all stuff that some families never, ever talk about, or talk about guardedly, or in code, or in such a way as they don’t ever really say anything. In order to do all this, you, too, are going to have to change. And you are going to have to face that you, too, have some needs that have been perhaps unacknowledged.

But now it’s time for a change. For you to change means you may have to face your own needs — your need for your father to place you first, for instance. He didn’t do that. He met his own needs. He forgot about your needs. And he met the needs of this other woman, not your mother, not your mother who is dead. Not the mother you grieved. He let this other woman come in and replace her. Another need you may have right now is the need to not be so angry at your father that you could strangle him with your bare hands. That need is not being met right now. So you have to face what is behind that anger. What is behind that anger is sadness and fear. Your father has shown his weakness. He has shown his needs. The man you depended on for so long is now the weak one who needs your help. You are seeing the beginning of his decline. A new era is begun. You must be strong and responsible as he slips into being dependent and needy.

You have reached one of life’s turning points, and you are not alone. My advice to you is to begin now, because you could be at this for the next 20 years.

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My thoughts of the past are tormented by the present!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.


Dear Cary,

I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.

This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.

How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?

I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.

Tormented by the Present

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Dear Tormented,

Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.

So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.

Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.

For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.

If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.

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I’m still grieving over my childhood home

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Dear Cary,

It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.

Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.

The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut,  the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.

Missing My Home

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Dear Missing My Home,

The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.

But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.

I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?

I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.

FranceAd2015Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.

If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.

And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 3, 2009

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

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Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it.

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

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I won’t grovel for my mother-in-law!

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Cary’s classic column from

After all I’ve been through, I snapped. I don’t want to apologize, but I want my family back.


Dear Cary,

In the past three years, I have had a great deal of loss. My father, both grandmothers and my 36-year-old brother died. My mother had breast cancer and I had a miscarriage. Plus, two of our family pets passed. It has been a great deal to absorb, especially when the onslaught of loss kept going and going.

When a family member grew ill, or near the end, I relied on my mother-in-law to fly in to help my husband with our kids. She is retired, well off, and visited us often. Most visits with her tended to involve her taking us out for meals and taking us shopping. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I appreciated all the gifts and meals out as a diversion from our otherwise tight budget. Holidays were over the top; she even took our family on two Mexican vacations. We didn’t ask for money, or trips, but we did accept them gratefully.

When my last family member grew ill, I traveled across the country and my mother-in law came to stay with my family. The trip ended up being longer than originally planned because I decided to stay for the funeral. When I asked my mother-in-law to change her plans and stay one more day, she said she had a dentist appointment to attend. Furthermore, she asked if the funeral date could be changed or could someone else bring the ashes home. I was aghast. My grandmother’s funeral didn’t take precedence over a dentist appointment?

When I called my husband later that night, he told me that his mother had been concerned over our finances. She was urging him to look for a better job and asking when I was returning to work. She had been talking finances with him the whole time I had been gone, knowing full well that I handle the money in our family. She talked about feeling unappreciated. She had never brought up any of these topics with me, and to do so while I was gone and in such a dire emotional place, just seemed wildly inappropriate to me. I think she was acting needy when I was in a time of actual need.

In the end, my husband took time off work and sent his mother home in time for her appointment. On a layover, on the way home from the funeral, I called my in-laws and told them that I was canceling our next planned vacation to Disneyland. In part, I was angry over my losses and didn’t feel like “business as usual” after hearing her bemoan our finances. I thought, “Fine, if you’re suddenly worried about my money then I won’t spend any more of yours.” I have since returned to work and it’s been the silent (or martyr) treatment from her for almost a year now.

After licking my many wounds for many months, I realize that what family I have left is small and that I want to be close again, at the very least for the sake of my kids. I am at an impasse with my mother-in-law that I’d like to be resolved, but I don’t feel like groveling or apologizing. I miss our old relationship, when we were close and things were fun, but realize that ship has sailed. What should I do?

Mother of All Mother-in-Law Issues

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Dear Mother of all Mother-in-Law Issues,

What should you do?

Grovel.

Seriously.

Grovel and apologize.

It will feel great.

It’s not that the groveling and apologizing will feel great. But when you finally become willing to grovel and apologize, you will have achieved a spiritual victory. You will be free of your wounded pride.

Before you feel free of your pride, you need to grieve. If you feel you can’t grieve because your mother-in-law has withdrawn her support, then you may well feel angry. Your pride may be hurt. If you are used to being the one who handles the money and someone comes in and starts giving advice, your pride is hurt. When our pride is hurt we want to strike out. When we feel threatened we want to strike out.

But you need to take care of yourself. You have “licked your wounds” but you have not allowed your grief the kindness of time. You may feel that grieving is a luxury, that before you can grieve, somebody has to step in and take care of things and make sure everything is running smoothly. So when your mother-in-law tried to take care of her own needs, you felt panic. How can you grieve, how can you get through this, if there isn’t someone making sure everything runs smoothly?

Well, as you know, death changes all that. Death doesn’t wait for us to clean up the house. It comes and plunges us into grief and certain things just have to wait.

The way we live our lives today, we don’t plan for difficulty. When overwhelming feelings arrive, as well they will, when grief arrives, and it will, when sadness comes, and it will, when the life cycle turns, we haven’t made room for it. We haven’t prepared the house for this new visitor.

So forgive those around you, and accept your own grief. Maybe the house will get messy. Maybe the kids won’t be perfectly taken care of. Maybe a little sheen will come off the glossy finish. That’s OK. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have some compassion for yourself. You’ve been hurt. You’ve been through hell. You’ve been through hell and haven’t given yourself credit. Possibly others haven’t given you credit either. So give yourself credit. Let yourself feel this. You’ve been beaten down. People you love have been taken from you. You lost a baby, for heaven’s sake! Life has taken loved ones from you. You’ve been torn apart. Let yourself feel this. Give yourself love.

How to repair your feelings toward your mother-in-law? One way is to list all the things you are grateful to your mother-in-law for. List all the things she has done for you, the gifts, the visits, the dinners. Just list all the things you are grateful for. Think of what you would miss if she were gone. And thank her for all these things.

When your mother-in-law said she had to go back, isn’t it possible that she lied, that it wasn’t about the dentist, that she had emotional reasons of her own for getting back home? People do things to meet their own needs. They don’t necessarily understand consciously what all their needs are, or how they’re meeting them, so they say things like they have a dental appointment because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. So sometimes it comes out sounding pretty lame. And offensive. But it’s very hard in most families for someone to just say what they’re feeling.

And perhaps you need to grovel — not for your mother-in-law but for yourself. Maybe something in you is calling you to grovel, for it is an oft-observed truth that in what we most resist lies a deep attraction. So go ahead and get down on the ground and feel the ground. Grovel and let out your grief. Let yourself do this. A part of you wants to. Your prideful ego wants to maintain its appearance as the completely together entity who’s in charge of the finances and knows what to do in every instance. But it is your prideful ego that stands between you and relief. So let your ego blab on about its resentments and its anger and its refusal to grovel and refusal to apologize.

You don’t need to be afraid. Death comes. The ego doesn’t want to die or accept the fact of death, and so it stands between us and true grieving. In reality we decay. We lose people. Things fall apart. We leave the stage. We make room for more. That’s how it goes. Every life is full of constant leaving. It tears us apart but that’s how it is.

Just let it go, all this stuff. Let yourself break down. Let yourself fall to your knees. You’ve had enough. You’ve held it all together long enough. Let it go.

Let your tears fall. Let your tears fall into the ocean of tears that have fallen for all the departed for all the years that we have been saying goodbye to souls old and young. Let your tears fall into the river of souls. Let yourself fall to your knees and grieve for all the souls that have passed by us. Empty yourself of this grief. Empty yourself. Empty yourself and make room for all the new souls coming into the world.

Welcome all the new souls coming into the world. Make room for the life to come.

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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Who’s that woman I saw my father with?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 30, 2004
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I’m afraid she’s a gold digger. Besides, it’s too soon after Mom’s death for Dad to have a girlfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old and currently attending graduate school in fine art. About a year ago, my mother died from breast cancer after fighting the terrible disease for seven years. I was in another state attending school when complications led my mother to her final hours. I tried to get home as soon as I could, but she passed on while I was traveling home. I regret so much that I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Time has passed and my family has moved on. My mother died while we were moving to another city because my father had found a new job, and both my parents were in the process of building a new home. My family now lives in the home my mother designed while she was alive. I am not there most of the time due to graduate school, and both my younger brothers are in college, which leaves my father alone for most of the year. He is a physician and is doing well for himself currently. I was worried about him being alone for the first time. My parents were married for over 30 years and my dad is in his 60s, and still very active physically. However, he said he could take care of himself. My brothers and I promised we would visit as much as we can.

Class is out now and I returned home for summer vacation as well as to care for my father. For the first time, I have noticed something different about my father. He is forgetting to pay his bills and return calls to people. He is also forgetting simple things like closing the front door, closing the garage, and even the front door of his car. I thought that he was losing his memory due to his age, but then I noticed while I was checking the phone bill that he keeps calling a certain number. I also noticed that while on the phone he keeps mentioning phrases like “I keep thinking of you,” “like to keep seeing you,” and finally “I love you.” That last phrase got to me and now I realize that he is seeing a woman for the first time. Memory loss now looks like love. He is currently going to Las Vegas for a conference in October and on his reservation form I read the name of the woman who is going to be staying with him. Now I am devastated by this.

My brothers and I have never seen this woman and among all of us, we don’t know anything. I do suspect one woman I saw him with at church, though I don’t have any proof that she is the one. But if she is, this woman is recently divorced and living with her mother, who has heart disease. I saw her less than livable living conditions while my father drove to her house after church with the excuse he wanted to get some food she was talking about to him. At that time, he went inside her house and left me in the car.

If the relationship is so serious, why hasn’t my dad told his own children? I am beginning to suspect bad things about this woman now, whoever she is. My father is a doctor and I know women will go to a man like him out of lust and greed. The last thing I want is my father being in a relationship with a woman who wants nothing but money out of him. I am still wondering why he is being so secretive about it. Should I confront him about my findings? Or should I let him tell my brothers and me about it in his own time? Or is it really none of my business? I don’t think I could control my emotions should he tell me he’s getting married sometime and he’s never even told his children about it in the first place.

I am still recovering from my mother’s death and it hurts a lot that he can proclaim love to a woman other than my mother, for what just seems to be weeks. I’m not sure what to do.

Not Looking for a Stepmother

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Dear Not Looking for a Stepmother,

Rather than confront him about what you have observed, I would suggest that you find some time to sit down and have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father. Ask him about the future, what he imagines doing, what he wants from his kids as the years go on, how he sees the next 20 years unfolding. Does he want to stay in this house his wife designed? How does it feel to be in this house now? Does it remind him too much of her? Does it make him sad or happy? Does he feel content there or vaguely lost? Ask him about grieving, whether he has some support in his grief, whether he’s talking to any counselors during this time. Since he is a physician, he is probably acquainted with psychiatrists, and since he is a churchgoing man, he knows where he can turn for spiritual guidance as well. Ask him if he has talked about his feelings with anyone. Ask him if he would like it if you tried to locate near him, so you could see him often. Ask him how he feels about his sons and their plans. Does he feel lost and lonely without his children around him, or is he in some ways grateful to have some time to himself. Ask him lots of questions. Ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. Ask him if he’s thought about remarrying.

Tell him things as well. Tell him that if he should have a girlfriend or decide to marry or is thinking about marrying that it’s OK with you. Tell him the only thing that would hurt you is if you didn’t know. Tell him not to worry, that his kids are strong and doing well and mostly grown up. Tell him he doesn’t have to shield his kids from the truth. Tell him part of the reason you’re saying these things is that you’re not over losing your mother yet, and you need to feel close to your father. Tell him how you feel about having been so far away when she died. Tell him how hard you tried to get there on time. Ask him if he missed you and wished you’d made it.

Oh, there are so many things you could talk about. I know fathers are hard to talk to sometimes, and as they get older they tend to drift a little, and they get tired and need a glass of water or just a drive in the car. But again, this is what I would suggest: Have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father; seek to know and understand but not control.

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How can I help my grieving daughter-in-law?

Cary’s classic column from

 

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I feel awful there isn’t more I can do


 

Dear Cary,

I always appreciate your philosophical approach to helping people reflect on their problems, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts on mine. How does one support another in grief? I actually am pretty good, I think, in the short run, in the immediate aftermath. I’m a good listener, I share my good memories of the deceased, I don’t try to downplay the pain or offer platitudes, and I do my best to sound out and anticipate what is actually needed rather than just lamely saying, “If you need anything …” which puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help, and I try to use my own experience of grieving when my parents died to support others. But in the long run, I’m not sure what is right.

Almost three years ago, my daughter-in-law’s younger brother died in a tragic accident when he was only 20. I never realized the kind of void that’s created by the death of a young person. Suddenly, all of the assumptions about the future are destroyed. Even my husband and I, though we barely knew the young man (in part because we assumed that we had all the time in the world to get to know him) had to adjust the future we imagined — in which he was the uncle of our future grandchildren and the father of their cousins. For my daughter-in-law, it has been devastating, made worse, I think, by her feeling that it was supposed to be her job to take care of her little brother, and not ever let anything bad happen to him. She was in no way responsible for his fatal accident.

My son has told both my husband and our other son, that she is still “having a hard time.” She is in therapy. She does function well. She has a job, she has hobbies, and she and my son have a reasonably active social life. But at the same time, I know she is still grieving, and I’m sure at some level always will. When our other son got married recently, I could tell that she was having a hard time holding it together during some of the wedding festivities. My son told my husband that she was sad thinking about how she would never be at her own brother’s wedding.

I don’t avoid talking about her brother, I have a photograph of her and her brother displayed in our home, at the wedding of my other son I put my arm around her as she cried (but, of course, many of us were in tears — it was a wedding, after all), and once recently when we were having a family get-together and I could tell she was trying to keep from crying I went over to her quietly and said, “You look so sad, I wish I could do something for you.” She didn’t say anything — I couldn’t tell if she thought I was being intrusive or not.

The anniversary of her brother’s death is coming up soon. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is near her birthday, and the birthdays of many in the family. Additionally, his birthday falls on a holiday. So, again, my question is, how do I support her in her grief? Do I write a letter saying I remember the anniversary of his death and that I know she is still grieving? I know I am powerless in the face of death but I still want to do something. I want to be there for her.

Sad, Too

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Dear Sad, Too,

Well, for starters, I must thank you for what you said about not saying, “If you need anything …” That is very insightful. When we are clobbered by grief, we don’t know what we need or how to ask for it. If an elbow is proffered maybe we lean on it. But if we had to say, “Would you please proffer your elbow so I may lean on it, because I’m grieving and it would make me feel better, even though technically I am able to stand and walk just fine …” well, that just is not likely to happen.

Sometimes a helping hand, extended without being requested, and without being mentioned, is about the sweetest, most helpful and touching thing one could want. And knowing how to do that is a beautiful thing.

You have a great grasp of the essentials — that when one is grieving one needs support in ways one doesn’t expect to need support, and in ways that are hard to ask for. One needs support without a lot of to-do.

As I read through the rest of your letter, I honestly don’t think I have much to add. You’re handling it very well. But here is one thing I can think of that may help in the long term: Just never forget. She may be grieving for a long time; let her grieve as long as she grieves. There may come a time when other people have moved on and yet she is still raw. Three years from now, five years from now, a decade from now, everyone else may have moved on, yet her wound may still be fresh. It takes as long as it takes. Keep doing what you are doing, remain alert to her fragile feelings, and remember that her sadness will last a long time.

You know, when bad things happen sometimes we feel bad for a long time — and that should be the title of a self-help book: “When Bad Things Happen Sometimes We Feel Bad for a Long Time.” By Cary Tennis.

Yeah. I should write that.

Like I said, you’re doing great. There’s not much more you can do. Just keep being human. Just don’t stop. The one thing you can do is remember when others forget.

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My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog

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Cary’s classic column from

He’s had some tough blows lately, but I’m concerned he’s really losing it.


Dear Cary,

My younger brother, 40, is an anxious, depressed social recluse. He lives with his dog in a basement apartment alone. He never answers his phone. He only returns calls if it’s urgent. He is getting more obese by the day, smokes and hacks and coughs, may be drinking. He now smells, doesn’t cut his hair. He’s so anxious, he’ll do anything to avoid discussing real issues (his) and talks only about superficial things.

I’m in the unenviable position of being the one who can intervene — or not. Although we have an older brother who would support me, he’s not prepared to lead the way. I’ve had many talks with my younger brother, pleading with him to see a doctor to get help. I’ve had my own mental health and addiction problems over the years, and I’ve shared my experience with him, including how much better I’m doing as a result of an SSRI I’m taking. I’ve offered to go with him to the doctor, to get him the names of people who can help. I’ve even told him I’d have to have him forcibly removed from his place if I felt he was becoming suicidal. He laughed it off. He still seems rational to talk to, but his life is crazy.

He lost his job about a year ago. It was a media job, pretty high profile. He’d been working at the same place basically since finishing college. He’s talented and attractive, but not proactive in the least; he got as far as he did mostly because others pushed and made opportunities for him. In his first serious relationship (with someone from work, a “star”), he allowed himself to be treated with a lot of disrespect and completely deferred to her needs. In the end, she ended it and got married to someone who could provide what she needed. Soon after that, my brother rebounded with another woman, also from work but not a high-profile girl. Instead, she was a sweet but impulsive, gregarious, high-energy party type. Within six months, he’d proposed and they soon married.

From almost the day after their marriage, my brother seemed to abdicate and begin retreating. He didn’t seem to worry anymore about putting effort into being positive, energetic, doing things. He became a lazy, withdrawn and bitchy guy who saw his work as his main obligation. True, his work required a lot of social energy; it required interacting with a lot of people; but he didn’t seem to have anything left for his wife. After years of this and a general decline that saw him more and more withdrawn — never returning calls to family or friends, so that eventually he had no friends left — his wife left him. A week or two later, our father, whom he also neglected over the past years, died; months later, he was fired.

I don’t fear that he’s suicidal at this point. What makes me angry is that I know, in one way, where this will end up, and it means I’ll be cleaning up for him because he’s refusing to take my help now. He’ll run out of money and become destitute, and I’ll have to either take him in or otherwise “solve his life” for him. I get exasperated often as I wonder how someone who is being served up help on a platter can be so damned stubborn and insist they’re “not ready for it” — knowing it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, I guess he might make some change once he hits the real rock bottom — who knows? I’m torn about whether I should intervene now or whether he should be left to go through this?

Big Sis

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Big Sis,

What strikes me about your brother is that within a matter of months he lost his wife, his father and his job. That would be a setback for anyone. Some people would bounce back fairly soon. They would get another job and work through their loneliness and grief on their own time. Others might be seriously shaken, but would at least maintain their standard of living and basic hygiene. He went into a tailspin. I wonder why.

It could be that he is clinically depressed. If at all possible, have him examined. The stress of events may have triggered an episode. But I must be careful with such speculation; not only am I unqualified to diagnose, but as a writer, my bias is toward meaning, not pathology. So perhaps this is not illness at all. Perhaps it is a kind of journey.

What kind of journey could it be? You say that he is talented and attractive, but not proactive, and that his success at work was largely due to the favorable actions of others. You say that in his first relationship he deferred to the needs of his partner. That leaves the impression that he is affable and charming but somewhat passive. Perhaps in the past whenever he faced adversity he would give up until someone came along to rescue him. This time there is no one to help him to his feet — not his dad, not his wife, not his co-workers — only you, big sister, only you.

I always look for signs that the soul is seeking knowledge. The soul seeks knowledge through adversity. Sometimes that adversity is self-generated. People break the law and get locked up; we call it acting out; we call it antisocial, as if in a perfect world none of it would happen. We do not often pause to consider the value of our dark journeys, the priceless material we carry back with us when we return, shaken but sobered by what we have seen.

While we are sometimes too quick to assume that abnormality is illness, that deviation is pathology, as I say, I am no kind of doctor. (If I were, I would be a crazy doctor crawling in the muck, a scary bearded banger of bells, a gonger, a shouter, a vibrating and unreliable sage. I would be applauding the insane as they are led away in wagons. I would not be the kind of doctor you want to mend an arm or fix a tooth.) So, again, you should have a real doctor find out if he’s clinically depressed, if he needs to be treated. If he is physically in danger, if he becomes suicidal, then perhaps to save a life a doctor has to intervene.

But perhaps he is struggling to accept adversity on his own. Perhaps, stricken by grief, alone in the world for the first time, he is trying to find out what difference it makes if he smells bad or not, if he answers the phone or not, if he succeeds or just sits alone in the dark with his dog. Perhaps he is on a twisted journey toward self-reliance. Perhaps in this way he is trying to become a man! As much as I want him to be OK, I also want to honor his decision to descend into a kind of funky, ugly madness.

In the meantime, what is your role? If you determine that he’s not in imminent danger, you stand by. You stand by like a tug when a ship is in distress, like a spotter for a gymnast attempting a difficult flip. Do not assume that simply because he has chosen to retreat to the basement with his dog that he is irretrievable. After he has gone where he has to go, he may emerge one day, blinking in the sunlight, looking strangely radiant, saying, Look, look what I found, I may have paid too much for it but look how it shines!

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