Dear Margo: Living in Dread

How to cope with the fear a family member will pass away in the night? Margo Howard’s advice

Living in Dread

Dear Margo: Since my father died eight years ago, I have become increasingly close to my mom. She is 81; I am 49. We have become best friends and do almost everything together. We spend a good deal of time together every day and call each other when we’re apart. I work as a freelancer, so my work hours are flexible, and I spend virtually all of my free time with Mom. Over the years, I have come to appreciate her as a woman and a friend.

While I am very happy with this arrangement, I am afraid of the future. I have no close friends; my work is satisfying, but random; and I dread the day when I find myself alone. Given my mom’s age, I know she will not be with me forever — and I can’t stand the thought of her dying. It’s to the point where I have trouble sleeping and have nightmares of her being gone when I do fall asleep. I hate saying goodnight each evening for fear of being away from her. She feels the same way and tells me I’m the best daughter she ever could have hoped for.

I know life goes on, but I don’t know how I will adjust and reconcile myself to my mom not being there. I’m usually an upbeat, positive person, but I don’t know how to cope with this tremendous fear of impending loss. — Fearing the Future

Dear Fear: By my reckoning, you are almost 50 years old with no friends except for an aging mother. While it is lovely that you have come to appreciate her and love spending time together, there is something a little off about your insulation, along with your fear of the inevitable. Forgive me, but yours is a neurotic, immature approach to realism, and I would suggest for your mental health, both now and “after,” that you see a therapist who could be useful in getting you on a healthier, less troubled emotional track. — Margo, conventionally

Who Pays?

Dear Margo: My husband and I are having a difference of opinion, and I wondered whether you could help us out. We are planning a vacation this summer with our 18-year-old daughter, our family friend of 32 years and his 17-year-old daughter. The plan is to share the cost of a cabin, but each family would pay for their own food and entertainment.

Now there is a possibility that our friend will not be able to come, in which case we would pay the entire cabin cost, but I suggested we still have his daughter come. My husband says if we invite her, then we should be responsible for paying for all of her food and entertainment. I think it would be appropriate to ask her dad to send funds with her to pay for the things that we were planning to do if he were going to be there. Can you tell me what the proper etiquette is for this situation? — Summer Planner

Dear Sum: I think your issue is not so much about etiquette as it is about common sense and hospitality. Since the young woman would be a pal for your daughter, and should she show up unaccompanied, I think the proper thing is for your family to pay for her food and entertainment. She is, after all, one person. There is a chance that the friend may, in fact, show up, but should he not, my bet is that he will send his daughter with funds. If she offers to pay her own way for some things, that could be an on-the-spot decision based on what you think would make her feel more at ease. — Margo, comfortably

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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27 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Susan JH says:

    LW1, in addition to the advice Margo gave you, I urge you to widen your circle starting NOW.  I have a friend who got into a similar situation by limiting her entire social life to her parents, eventually cutting herself off from almost all of her friends.  After her parents died, she was 56 years old and virtually alone in the world but for a few persistent friends such as myself who would not allow her mother to chase us away.  She lived in the same area she’d lived in since she was 17, and had not a friend in the entire place.  I urged her to move to my town so she would at least have one person she could count on, but instead she moved to the opposite coast to be with her brother, despite his and his family’s obvious intent not to include her in their lives at all.  Eight years have passed, and she has made no friends in her new area and is upside down in her mortgage, so she can’t sell and move here now. 

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      What a sad situation, which I gather may have been fostered by her mother.

      • avatar Susan JH says:

        Yes, my friend’s mother did foster the situation, and I didn’t realize how much she had done so until her death.  At the mother’s memorial service, my friend’s aunt said the father had told her that he kept pushing the mother to cut the apron strings to let my friend “have a life”, but my friend was her mother’s best friend and, I surmise, ONLY friend.  I was in town on business a few years before the mother died, and it was the first time I had been there in over 15 years.  When I asked her to meet me for dinner, she claimed her mother suddenly had a “spell” and she couldn’t get away.  I suspect the “spell” occurred as soon as the mother heard her mention dinner with me.

  2. avatar Karen Schumacher says:

    For LW2, it sounds like they might be going to a resort area, where you rent a cabin and then there are several amusement parks and activities in the area. It’s not unusual for the amusement parks and activities to cost a couple hundred dollars when taken together as a whole. Given the potential cost, I can see where wanting the daughter of the friend to pay her way for the big things could be useful to the bottom line of the trip. Rather than say ‘all meals and entertainment will be taken care of’, it might be better to say ‘We’ve got the small stuff, but if she wants to go to Park 1/Park 2/Aquarium/Park 3/Adventure, she’ll have to bring funds.’ I can see buying a friend’s teenager meals, but I wouldn’t be thrilled about paying $65 to get her into Dollywood, then $50 per head for the zip-line adventure, then $25 into the aquarium for a standard weekend trip.  

  3. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I’m 47, married and childless, and it IS difficult finding friends/social circle; especially as most women in our age group are busy with their teenagers or even younger children. But you must try. I now have lunch once monthly with 3 gals, and recently invited a married mother of 2 pre-teens (and a part-time schoolteacher) to lunch (we had a nice time). I also volunteer with a Wednesday-night program for teens & children (I help in kitchen and also collect contributions). That puts me in with ladies my age and older. Your mother will grow more frail, and eventually pass on. You need to take steps NOW to having some friends/acquaintances.

    L #2: For me, it’d depend on what level of entertainment and how much $$ you have. If it’s financially comfortable for you/husband to host this young lady, I’d do so. However, I don’t think you’d be wrong to ask her father; but I likely wouldn’t.

  4. avatar martina says:

    LW1 – If you are a spiritual person, church is a good place to find friends.

    LW2 – How many times have I had to deal with this issue. I made sure that I have the money to invite them because I believe that if you invite the child along it is your responsiblity to pay for them.  It was a nice bonus when they said that their parents sent money along.  When they did, I still treated them to something during the day.  It’s tough when you don’t have much money and have to say, I’m sorry your friend can’t come because we can’t afford it and it’s rude to ask them to pay. When my daughter was invited to go with a friend, I made sure that she had money to cover entertainment and food and that she offered to pay.  Now, if my daughter said that “Jane” asked if she could come along, I would have said it’s OK if they can pay at least for admission.   LW1 might want to pose it as more of a “Would you still like us to take your daughter” and then it’s more of the original arrangement less the father.

  5. avatar mmht says:

    LW#2:  For me the tell tale sign that you should be paying is that you are INVITING this girl along.  It is not the father asking you if she could still come.  If you don’t feel that you can afford it, then don’t invite her along.  For all you know, the reason the family friend is backing out of the trip in the first place is financial, so to invite his daughter along and then ask him to pay for it is just rude.

    • avatar Lila says:

      mmht, good point that the cancellation might be for financial reasons.  While this was a pay-your-own-way group activity at the start, the situation is different when you invite someone along as a guest, especially a kid.  Most 17-year-olds don’t really have their own means. 

  6. avatar Lila says:

    For Dreading, I had a similar situation so I get it.  Both parents are gone now, so my husband, friends, and activities are what my life revolves around now.
    Susan JH is right, you need to widen your circle.  Bring your mother along and get engaged with different groups and activities.  It will enrich her remaining years, it will bring you acquaintances and hopefully, friends, and when you mother is gone – there will be others who can share your memories of her.
    See what group activities you can do together with your mother, whether it’s volunteering, ballroom dancing, birdwatching, craft hobbies etc. 

    • avatar mayma says:

      I politely disagree.  The whole point is to do something without her mother.  She sounds attached to her mother in an unhealthy way, and bringing mom along isn’t going to address that.

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        Regarding LW1, I disagree with your disagreement. LW1 may be attached to her mother in an unhealthy way—and there may be more than one issue going on here. The idea is to take baby steps toward a sense of separation, but also support and empowerment.

        The idea of suddenly trying to develop a social life without her mother’s involvement is going to be difficult at best—and should be treated like a sort of addiction. By doing things that involve others AND her mother, LW1 accomplishes several healthy goals—she weans herself off a strictly 1:1 relationship with Mom, still maintains contact with her (while seeing her in a different context) in what is hopefully a fun social setting, AND possibly builds a support system for her mother should both of them need one later on. 

        Doing something like this allows LW1 to uncover some of the underlying reasons why she is stuck in this relationship dynamic. Does she feel guilty if she does something without her mother? Is she worried that something will happen to her? Is there something her mother can teach her (since she respects her as a woman and a friend) about developing other friendships? She might be surprised at what the root cause of this problem actually is. 

        LW2: “We’re glad to have her. Tell her to bring some spending money if she wants to buy anything special or the girls want to do something on their own.” 



        • avatar Lila says:

          David, yes to all of the above, and when the grieving process eventually comes around, it will probably be helpful to have mutual acquaintances who knew her mother.  Being able to share impressions and memories of the deceased can be an important part of getting through one’s grief. 
          It also is a way to develop her own friendships which will hopefully carry on after her mother is gone, without inducing the guilt of “she was in her 80s, I knew this was coming… I knew her time was limited… I wish I had spent more time with her…”  etc.

  7. avatar shazzanorth says:

    LW2:  This man has been a family friend for 32 years.  I suspect he knows about and is sensitive to your financial situation.  Lay your cards on the table and say that you’d love her company but paying for a day at Water Sky Adventure just pushes the vacation cost over the top.  I bet he’ll pitch in.  (Unless his reason for pulling out was financial…).

  8. avatar staili says:

    I think Margo was way too harsh in her language with LW#1.  If the LW wrote the same thing and said her husband was 81 rather than her mother, would Margo still have said she had a “neurotic, immature approach to realism” for acknowledging her husband will probably die way before the LW?  I agree that it’s not in the LW’s best interest to be so isolated, but I don’t think the LW should be scorned.  She’s writing in because she knows there is a problem.

    (I don’t know if the LW is male or female, so I used “she” but could have used “he” just as easily.) 

    • avatar abbysmom says:

      I think neurotic is a reasonable conclusion.  the woman is a insulated soul who worries about her only source of companionship dying to the point that she looses sleep.  Margo didn’t scorn, she advised.  It isn’t necessary for her to placate the lw, and in using the language that she did, she may well have jolted the woman into doing something about her sad situation.

      • avatar tweety says:

        abbysmom, I’m sorry, but I agree with staili. Margo’s response felt harsh to me as well. I’m not saying it wasn’t accurate, but Margo’s choice of language was definitely unkind. She may not have consciously intended it, but it felt like Margo wanted to put the letter writer down. 

        I know there have been other letters where I felt Margo’s response was also scornful. I remember a letter about a woman who kept selecting men who treated her badly and Margo disdainfully said something about her being a ‘slow learner’. I also remember that Margo’s response got a letter from another woman who had had a difficult childhood and didn’t appreciate being called a ‘slow learner’ because of it.

        I know Margo’s not a therapist, she’s just someone who writes an advice column, but still.

        • avatar mayma says:

          But the 81-year-old ISN’T her husband.  A spouse is a totally, 100% different relationship than that of a mother, of course, as it indicates an ability to connect with someone outside of the womb.  It’s not an apples to oranges comparison.  

          I thought Margo’s response was direct and necessary; the LW didn’t seem to see any problem except for the sleeplessness.  Margo had to spell out that she needs help now to understand why she is in such a symbiotic relationship — one that excludes all other people!

          (And if two spouses interacted only with each other, to the exclusion of all others, I think Margo would call that neurotic and immature, as would I.)

          • avatar tweety says:

            I still say Margo’s language was harsh. I don’t care about the spouse comparison. 
            This may get flagged as off-topic, but do you think Margo would ever say to Kitty Kelly that Kitty was neurotic and immature? She wouldn’t because Kitty wouldn’t appreciate that level of ‘necessary directness’, as necessary for Kitty’s good health to hear as it is. Margo would actually show some consideration for Kitty’s feelings – certainly more than she’s shown to LW1. (And yes, Margo, I know Ms. Kelly is a good friend of yours, but the woman is still neurotic and immature, and for some reason you’re okay with it.)

  9. avatar Pinky35 says:

    LW#1, In my experience, I’m more worried about my mom getting along and finding friends in her middle age as she is headed for divorce and both her parents are both long gone. She has few friends and she has said more than once that I’m not only her daughter but best friend. However, I do have my own life and there are times I wish she would find other people to socialize with. As great as it is being with your parents, there comes a time when you need to find your own social circle. Because like you said, when she is gone you will have nothing and no one to lean on. So, please make that effort now to meet new people and make friendships. 

    LW#2, I am in agreement with what a few people have said. If the 17 year old girl is being invited along, then the LW’s family should offer to pay. However, it would be in bad form if the girl didn’t come with at least some spending money of her own. It’s the polite thing to do for her to offer to pay at least for some of the entertainment. Meals should be taken care of by the LW. If the father is asking if his daughter can still come, I would expect him to give her some spending money to take with her. I would still expect the LW to pay for the girl’s meals, though.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Pinky, one thing I have found for socializing is traditional dance groups – not ballroom, but those forms that are inherently social in nature.  English Country, Contra, Ceilidh, and Square, for example.  Since we relocate a lot, I have been involved with a range of groups and every one of them was filled with great folks ranging in age from kids up to grandparents.  It’s great fun, a good way to keep the body moving, and a good way to meet people.

      • avatar Anais P says:

        Excellent idea! In addition to the social aspects, dancing is also great exercise, and music always lifts the soul. I hope LW1 follows your suggestion.

  10. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: Freelance work can be isolating in itself, no doubt contributing to your dilemma. Does your mother have friends … or is she as cut off from the world as you appear to be? While you busily contemplate the loneliness of life without her, you need to also consider what her life would be like if anything happened to you. Life brings no guarantees, and you could step off a curb to encounter a bus at any moment, leaving your mom to fend for herself. You owe it to yourself AND to your mother to develop a network of acquaintances that might well develop into rewarding friendships. Keep in mind that such ties typically don’t happen over night, so don’t expect too much, too soon.

    LW2: It’s hard to imagine your friend would send his 17-year-old off to join you without some money for grub and fun at her disposal. Unless your finances are so tight that an extra sandwich at the sub shop or even a steak at a nicer restaurant would strap you, why not count on your friend’s common sense prevailing?

  11. avatar A R says:

    LW1: I’m sorry for how scared the letter writer is. I watched my MIL gradually limit her interactions to just her elderly mom, and that was hard for her when her mom passed away. I think she knows that she has a problem, and for those who are painfully shy or introverted, just making friends can be rough. I hope that she’ll begin to do volunteer work or join a community group to help her branch out.
    LW2: If the dad bows out, he’s probably bowing out on behalf of him and his daughter. If you decide to invite her to accompany your family without him,it’s good hospitality to plan on paying her dining and activity expenses too. She may bring spending money, but if you invite, you pay–just like any other hosting situation. If you don’t want to pay for an extra teen, don’t ask her to still come. Your husband wins this round.

  12. avatar Jennifer juniper says:

    I disagree with most comments about the rental of the cabin.  To me, there is a MUCH bigger issue first.
    I am not sure exactly how it works with such rental properties, but here in Europe you have to book such accommodation way ahead of time.  And that price is dependent on the number of people that the property can sleep.  Unless this was not the case or it was possible to change the booking to fewer people (and therefore a smaller price) then the friend is responsible for his portion of the rental WHETHER OR NOT HE GOES.  In which case, the friend’s daughter could obviously still go under the initial plan and also like the initial plan, she should pay for her own food and entertainment.  I don’t get the sense that they’ve changed anything about the rental as the friend ‘might still come’.  Why on earth does anyone think that sticking friends with the full total of a summer rental you expected to halve then deserves to have their child’s ‘extras’ paid for???

    • avatar Lilibet says:

      I agree with you, Jennifer. That’s usually how it is in the U.S. too. It’s wrong to just back out of a reservation and leave the others holding the bag.

      Years ago we arranged a ski trip for a group of our daughter’s friends in their late teens. Each one chipped in for the house rental (non-refundable after a certain point) and we made it very clear that if they backed out for any reason (even sickness) and we could not find an acceptable replacement, their part was non-refundable and could not be absorbed by the others or by us. We knew how fickle people of any age can be. As it happened, one person did get sick and the group very kindly decided to absorb his part. But that should never be expected once the reservation is locked in.

      • avatar A R says:

        From the tone of the letter, it sounded to me like they were still considering initiating the reservation. I didn’t get the impression that the rental property had actually been retained yet. The way I read it, the author talks as if her family and the other family are still talking about possibly going in together on the place.

  13. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – One word; cats. Get a bunch of them. They will be your friends. Seriously though, do what Margo suggested because what you are going through now is not healthy and implies some real issues. Find a good therapist. Maybe one with some cats.

    LW2 – Good grief just be gracious when you can and if you absolutely have to just ask the guy to send along some spending money (don’t indicate how much) and leave it at that.