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“Ask a Priest: What to Do About an In-Law With Mental Issues?”
Q: What is my obligation to a grown sibling (of my husband) who has some mental health issues and does not want to grow up and take responsibility for herself? She lost her mother young and had a child out of wedlock at 18. She then had a series of bad relationships and never married. She is now a grandmother, but her daughter is divorced and does not want to deal with her mother. We took her in for 11 years and she held down a job for that period but was disruptive to our household. For the last year she was living a more independent life but leaning on her sister’s family. With the lockdowns and working from home, she recently had an acute mental break with anxiety and paranoid delusions. We took her back in to get her help. She is now on some meds and is starting counseling. I feel terrible saying this, but I do not want her to stay with us again. It is hard on our marriage and we feel like we are carrying her load because she does not want to carry it herself. I do not want to offend God, but I do not want her to live with us again. I feel like we enable her to avoid responsibility, but I am not sure if she can make it on her own. – M.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I’m sorry to hear about the situation. It must be a great strain on the family.
There is no simple answer in this case. It’s about process as much as results.
By that I mean your sister-in-law ideally needs to take responsibility for her life as much as possible. The question, of course, is how much she can realistically be expected to do on her own.
You mention mental health problems; they can run along a wide range of issues, in varying degrees of intensity. Evaluating what your sister-in-law can realistic handle is something that would need to be determined with mental health professionals.
Our Lord has probably allowed this trial in your life because he can bring something good out of it.
You would be justified, I think, to keep the good of your immediate family in mind, without losing sight of the general obligation we have to offer help to struggling relatives. You might try to set up realistic boundaries and ground rules for your sister-in-law. In consultation with the rest of the relatives, you might see whether an alternative living arrangement for her is feasible and affordable.
Your long patience with her can send a strong signal to the rest of the family that no one is expendable, that everyone has a place. This is part of the drama of marriage and family life.
It might help for you and your husband to intensify your prayers and sacrifices, and ask God for the grace to move forward. If need be, you and husband might seek out counseling, too.
Then, take things one day at a time. The Holy Spirit will be guiding you.
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