Advice columnist

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My husband is overseas for work, and his mother has been hospitalized with double pneumonia. He has asked me to go check on her every day and then, if necessary, coordinate help for her when she gets home. He said if I'm not comfortable doing that, he can end his trip early.

I'm very awkward with his mother. She is a beautiful, elegant and accomplished woman and I feel like a clod around her. She is nice to me, but I am sure she believes her son could have married better. I'm not even sure how much she will appreciate having me intrude on her in the hospital, though she has said she would be glad to have me.

How do I approach this? Do you have any good tricks for cutting through initial awkwardness?

— Awkwardville

Awkwardville: If she actually “believes her son could have married better,” then she’s not “beautiful, elegant and accomplished,” she’s a snob.

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)


So, IF she is a snob, then go, be yourself, be as helpful as you can, know it’s finite, don’t stay longer than 30 minutes, and call it an act of love for your husband.

If instead you’re right about the “beautiful, elegant and accomplished,” then please consider you’re wrong about how she sees you. Maybe she even wonders and laments that you keep her at arm’s length.

Either way, the best awkwardness prevention tactic is to help. Find out what she needs, talk to the care team to the extent you’re allowed, bring something to brighten the room or help her occupy her time. Ask your husband and also think hard about her interests, so you can bring something apt.

If you can’t think of anything on your own, then bring a cheery little potted plant and ask what you can fetch her to help pass the time. Books, e-books, magazines, podcasts.

Hospitalized people want visitors to come, then want visitors to go — but only after they lend their mobility to get a few things done.

Readers’ thoughts:

●Just imagine her saying, “I used to think my son could have done better, but I now understand what he sees in her.”

●You can ask her if she wants a special snack, or her perfume, or her tweezers and a magnifying mirror, does she want you to wash her hair? What about going to her house and checking on her mail? Maybe you can do some texting for her. When she comes home, have a tray on her bed with her hand lotion, phone, memo pad and pen, some magazines, tissues, maybe a small snack.

●This is a great opportunity to get to know your mother-in-law, if she’s open to it. Ask her if there are any card or board games she likes and bring a few to play together (great way to break the ice). Or, you could listen to a podcast together and then discuss it.

●When my dad was hospitalized, one of the best things I could do was to bring my laptop so we could stream movies.

●Your MIL will be exhausted. Stock the fridge, get the mail, change her sheets before she comes home. Arrange for meal delivery or leave meals in the fridge. She’ll think you’re an angel.

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