I have the sweetest mother-in-law in the world. She is also bipolar but has been medication-free and without an episode for years. Recently, her fraternal twin was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, and no one knows how long she may have left. My father-in-law and my mother-in-law's siblings (including her ill twin) are refusing to tell her about the diagnosis. They fear that she may have an "episode." Apparently when her brother died of a heart attack—which everyone kept from her until she figured out something was really wrong—she spent many days and nights crying. This just sounds like going through the mourning process to me, but my husband tells me that this is what her "episodes" are like. My husband wants to tell his mother about her twin but is worried about aggravating his father, who has a heart condition. If any of my immediate family members had a terminal illness, I feel that it would be my right to know. Wouldn't my mother-in-law appreciate some honesty? I don't think that I should break this type of news, but I have no idea how to advise my husband, who is torn and upset.
—Keeping My Mouth Shut
You say your mother-in-law takes no medication and has had no signs of mental illness except for crying when close family members die. I think maybe everyone in your husband's family needs a mental evaluation, because they all sound a little off—except for your mother-in-law. I neglected to obtain a medical degree, but I'm going to venture that someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder who has gone for years with no treatment and no manic or depressive episodes needs a new workup to find out if she's been misdiagnosed. But anyone would be driven crazy, whether or not they had an illness, to be treated like an incompetent child while picking up whispers of terrible things they were judged too fragile to handle. How cruel to keep your mother-in-law the only one in the dark about her sister's potentially terminal illness. This family is depriving her of the ability to spend time with her twin before it is too late. I note that the twin is in on this ruse. So maybe everyone thinks your mother-in-law gets overly emotional. (Does this family allow any emotion?) If your mother-in-law is informed and starts calling her twin too much, either her twin or a family member speaking on her behalf should tell your mother-in-law that a lot of visits and phone calls are hard for someone undergoing treatment. You're right, it's not your place to break this news, but it is your husband's. Try to persuade him that, in the short term, the most loving thing to do is to tell his mother about her twin. And in the long term, it is to get her to a competent doctor to find out if there really is anything wrong.
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