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Telling Parents About Sick Son

Nov 1, 2002

Mr. Shernoff, I have recently learned that my brother has been diagnosed with AIDS related PML and is only expected to live a short while longer. He lives 3000 miles away from us and has been virtually a stranger for the last 30 years. My elderly and frail parents do not know anything about his medical condition (including the fact that he has been HIV+ for over 10 years) and I am wondering how to break the news to them. Thank you for your answer.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

You must be in touch with your brother to know this information. I suggest that you speak with him about what his feelings and suggestions are. If he has been as you say a virtual stranger, that means that your parents must really not want to have contact with him and have done their part along with him to have allowed this estrangement to fester. They may not even want to know that he is sick or dying.

Since I know nothing about the dynamics of your family I do not feel comfortable trying to tell you how to go about this, or even whether you should do it at all

Are you sure that they need to know? If they have not had contact with your brother for 30 years how are they even going to know that he has died? Are you thinking that you need to tell them because of your own needs or theirs? It does not seem likley that at this point in your brother's life or your parents' that a major family reconciliation is likely, though I of ocurse can be wrong about this.

In addition to discussing this with your brother to see what he wants, the only possible place to begin is to speak to your parents about your brother generally and see if they seem open to having any kind of communication with him. If not, why bother and try to force it? If so, then only if your brother agrees proceed. But if neither wants to open up these lines, I am puzzled as to why do they need to know now, after not speaking to him for 30 years? After all he has not been a part of their lives or visa versa.

So think about all of this before you decide to do anything. I know that you have not asked about trying to reconcile your brother and parents. But if that is not part of your thinking, then perhaps you are really feeling the need of support from your parents, or at least the ability to speak to them about this difficult issue. There are other sources of support for you if you seek those out.

Good luck during this difficult period.

Michael Shernoff, MSW

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