Ask Amy: Daughter seeks balance in sharing father’s health journey

Dear Amy: My father is on the far side of a debilitating and eventually terminal neurological disorder. He’s not able to dress himself anymore, his language is mostly gone, and it’s generally sad and depressing all around. My mother is his full-time caregiver, and my siblings and I all live in different states.

I am often asked by friends, extended family, coworkers etc., “How’s your dad doing?” or, “How are your parents?,” especially after I return from a visit home.

After years of trying to spin things more positively than truthfully, I’ve been defaulting lately to, “Not good” or “He’s worse; he’ll never be better.”

These responses typically make people grimace or apologize. I certainly don’t intend to bring on this response.

My question to you: Is there a better way to answer this question honestly without being a real Debbie Downer?

The people asking already know about his condition, so they aren’t expecting sunshine and rainbows, but I know that just because I’ve fully accepted how bad things are doesn’t mean other people want an honest answer from me.

Follow up question: When people apologize regarding his condition, how am I supposed to respond?

I usually shrug and say that I’m at peace with the situation, but again, this seems needlessly awkward and often makes me feel (and probably appear) callous.

– Depressing (but not depressed!) Daughter

Dear Daughter: I’m so sorry you are going through this.

Do you perceive that statement as an apology? Because it is not. In this context, “I’m sorry” is an expression of commiseration and empathy. Your friends are saying “I’m sorry this is happening.” Because they are.

(Occasionally, people delivering tough personal news respond to an “I’m sorry” response by saying, “Why? It’s not your fault,” and this is a dismissive response to a person who is trying to be kind.)

Does telling the truth about your father’s condition make you a “Debbie Downer”? No.

“Woe is me, I don’t deserve this, every visit home is a depressing nightmare for me and nobody is stepping up to help” is how Debbie would spin her tale.

You suppose that your local friends and extended family members “don’t want” an honest answer to their polite queries, but I think they do want your honesty, even if the unvarnished truth makes them feel inadequate in the moment.

You can encourage further communication (if that’s what you want), not by shrugging, but by saying, “Thank you so much for always asking about my folks. I really appreciate it, even when the news isn’t good.”

(You can email Amy Dickinson at or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

©2023 Amy Dickinson. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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