Cecilia Ford Ph.DCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she counsels a woman dealing with a narcissistic ex-brother-in-law who caused her dying sister great emotional anguish, but nevertheless demands to be in charge of his ex-wife’s funeral arrangements.

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Dear Dr. Ford:

My sister is dying at the age of 49 from ovarian cancer. She had no bad habits, always saw her gyn yearly, and went right away when she first had symptoms. This was just bad luck. She got two decent years from treatment and saw her children all graduate from college, and has been surrounded by people who loved and supported her and the children for the last two years. Her ex-husband had created a divorce from hell for her, tried to separate her from her children, refused to help with the extraordinary medical expenses when asked by his children, even though he is a big deal in the financial world and money was not the problem.

Now that she is in hospice, he is badgering everyone. He wants to do the funeral, the memorial, come to see her. He was always like this, by the way. He had to be seen as the important one.  He does control his children with the money thing, and I fear that he will talk them into letting him make her death and memorial about “what we had and the wonderful children we produced together.”  Fortunately, my sister will never know anything about this, since she is in a coma, but this is killing my parents, and all her devoted friends are furious.

How do I, her only sibling—the one who has been there for the children with her since the divorce five years ago, since the cancer was diagnosed, and all through its treatment—prevent this from happening?  My sister would have been horrified is she had known that he was capable of this.  I don’t want to lose my relationship with my three nephews, which means so much to me. And I promised my sister that I would be there for them, just as she would have been if life had been different.



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Louise:

The portrait you have painted of your sister’s life and illness is a tragic one. While losing a beloved family member is always very painful, when they are the victims of so much bad luck we feel particularly aggrieved. In your sister’s case it seems as if she has been twice victimized: first by her ex-husband, and now by fate—in the form of her illness. I feel as if your letter is asking, “How can I keep her from being victimized again?”

Adding to the mix is the fact that death stirs up our guilt and regrets. We always wonder what we could have done differently and how we could have better served our loved one. Your wish to handle your sister’s last days according to what she would have wanted is motivated by your love for her, but perhaps also by the guilt we always feel about the ways we have fallen short during the beloved’s life.

While it is important, of course, to respect your sister’s wishes, you need to be strategic in this situation. Actually, it seems as if the one thing that she wanted most was that you look after her children. Accordingly, you want to maintain your ties with your nephews and you don’t want to cause them unnecessary strife with their father. It seems important that her sons be the ones who determine how things will be handled in the end. How can you best help them? you must ask yourself. You need to figure out how to best support them, either in defying or capitulating to their father. Ask yourself: How might my actions affect her children?  This seems to be the most important promise you made your sister—to look after their interests.

So the question is, How can you all strategically handle the ex without causing a blow-up between him and the kids? The man you have described sounds like a classic narcissist. There is a well-known narcissistic sub-type who is motivated not only by a wish to always be important, but better still, the need to insert himself (or herself) in a drama. He is riding to the rescue, and wants be the captain of this sinking ship. Can you and the family find a way to gratify his ego to keep the peace, while staying true to the spirit of your sister’s wishes?

If you and the family are proactive about this, you may find a way to give him the illusion of control while still remaining cognizant of your sister’s spirit. Meet with your nephews and ask them how they think you can help them manage this. Perhaps you can strike a deal with her ex-husband about the funeral expenses. If he wants to pay, let him! It sounds as if he owes her a great deal, and this way he can start paying off his debt now. If he insists on “seeing” her, is there a way to allow him to visit her, but make him stand only in the doorway so that your comatose sister will not have to hear his voice?

The point is, despite how angry you are on your sister’s behalf, if you can keep your cool and “handle” him well it may work out to the family’s benefit. As you have said, resisting him may spell trouble for the kids. You can choose never to see him again after your sister dies, but her sons are stuck with him forever. This is your chance to honor your sister’s wishes by showing them an example of how to deal with him in a way that minimizes his destructive potential.

Dr. Cecilia Ford

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