Ask Helen: Family Heads into New Year Dealing with Tragic Changes

Dear Helen:

Recently the sister-in-law of a good friend/neighbor woke up (in L.A.), did her morning rituals, went to work, and while seated at her desk in the shop she and her husband owned, was struck by a truck doing 90 miles an hour that plowed into their new building, seriously injuring her and three others. She ended the day in ICU, in an induced coma after brain surgery, with many stunned and horrified loved ones praying for a non-tragic outcome, one that seemed painfully remote. When she woke that morning, she had no idea it was the last day of the life she had known. They’ve been told by the neurologist, “Sarah’s brain has been badly damaged. Even if she pulls through, she won’t really be Sarah any more, and she’ll need lots of extensive medical support for the rest of her life. If it were my wife, I’d pull the plug, and if it were me, I’d want her to do the same for me.”

What do they/you pray for in these circumstances?

As another consequence of the accident, my friend’s high- maintenance 93-year-old mother-in-law is about to move into her small guest room. The woman’s only activity other than eating and sleeping is watching game shows. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

How do I support my friend?

In Shock

Dear In Shock:
Rosh Hashanah is always a time of assessing life, but this family has more than most to assess and cope with. The world is a scary and unpredictable place. You’re describing five problems: the dying woman’s husband’s decision; her mother’s grief; your friend’s husband bringing his mother home; his wife’s acceptance of her mother-in-law; your support for your friend.

Here goes:
The husband must make the decision about his wife. He should consult with his rabbi as well as doctors, though many folks would trust the neurologist’s judgment. Yes to prayer, but I cannot tell you or anyone else what they should pray for. No one will ever be sure that the outcome they think they want is the best one for their loved one. It’s a tragedy, pure and simple.

No parent expects to survive a child. The loss is an extreme trauma, as is moving into a new living situation. The mother would need support after either trauma, let alone both. Your friend and her husband should provide lots of tenderness and care, but should not establish living arrangements that’ll break up the marriage. They should consider assisted-living/group homes as an option, or build a mother-in-law suite, after the initial shock wears off. Chicken soup first, problem-solving second.

Support your friend by letting her vent, cry and take quiet time as often as she needs, until the changes become a problem to be solved. Encourage her to support her husband and to have practical conversations with him about the logistics in L.A. (from funeral to selling his mother’s house).

Make sure he consults with other family members about the relocation and local options. Help her prepare a room for her mother-in-law by cleaning and painting it. Make it warm and welcoming as well as elder-accessible. Grab a paintbrush, run things to thrift stores or recycling, or just provide space and time for lots of listening and brainstorming. Make sure she knows you’re there for her.

Virtually everyone in “the sandwich generation” (people with aging parents and kids) will experience this problem. Help her find support groups and Internet tips once she gets past the shock of the sudden changes.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem-solving and chutzpah. Please email your questions to

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