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Relationships My sister-in-law overstayed her welcome in my hospital room. Am I wrong to have expected privacy?

The question

Earlier this year, I had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Contrary to our request for privacy, a sister-in-law gained access to the surgery waiting room, hovering around until she was allowed entry to see me. In each and every instance, she was of little, if any, help to my wife. She kept reappearing until my wife asked that she not be allowed access. Just because she is "family" does not override our request for privacy. Am I wrong?

The answer

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Despite being an advice columnist, I'm not really an "etiquette" expert. The two are often confused and considered interchangeable in popular parlance, but that would be a mistake – especially in my case. I got into this whole business in the first place because my etiquette sucks. I'm the type of guy who blurts out stupid stuff, who spills red wine on white couches, who forgets everything and everyone.

(People roll up to me: "David Scott Eddie! How's your third son, Adam? Did the zinc ointment help clear up that rash behind his left knee he had two years ago in October?" Meanwhile, the thought balloon over my head reads, "Have we met?")

I've lived my whole life in a constant stew of shame and guilt and conflict and humiliation, basically, so I've perforce had to become adept at "damage control." That is my area of expertise. Etiquette, less so. But I'll give it my best shot.

It seems to me that the etiquette of who visits you in a hospital, and whether they need to be invited, is a little murky.

With funerals, you're allowed, even encouraged, to show up uninvited. The thinking is that those nearest and dearest to the deceased are too distraught and upset to think of every last person they should be inviting. So in a way you're doing them a favour by crashing the funeral: it's one less thing they have to deal with.

Generally speaking, similar notions occur when it comes to hospital visitation. Invited or not, well-wishers just show up to drop off cards, flowers, and so on, figuring you've had a lot to deal with and are too preoccupied to issue invitations. (One key caveat – it depends on why the person is in the hospital. I've had crashers at the birth of my kids, which is shockingly chutzpah-licious and a no-no, IMHO. In fact, here's a PSA: People, if you weren't invited to a live birth, stay home and wait for it to come out on video.)

When someone does pop into your hospital room uninvited, it's up to your handlers to shoo them out when their stay becomes too boring/taxing/annoying. It's perfectly acceptable, and in fact part of the fun of being in hospital. I've often wished you could do it in everyday life: "Dave's tired and he's been through a lot. You should probably go now."

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But it pays to remember visitors are almost certainly there from the best of all possible motives, concern for your health and well-being.

Then again, all the above observations are, as I say, "generally speaking." There are busybodies in this world, people who get a Munchausen-y, Schadenfreuderiffic kick out of all the drama of a hospital stay. Whether your sister-in-law is one of those people is not, obviously, for me to say.

Bottom line: I think you handled it well. As the son of a nurse, I can tell you that if you don't want visitors during a hospital stay, nurses don't mind being the heavy. In fact many seem to relish the chance to say, "Mr. X can't see anyone right now," or, "I'm sorry, you're not on the list of visitors."

Which sounds like just what you did. So, no, I don't think you did anything wrong, nor should you feel the need to do any "damage control." Especially if you specifically requested no visitors beforehand and your sister-in-law ignored that.

If you do feel you might have ruffled her feathers and want to smooth things over, you could say something to the effect of, "I wasn't in great shape and didn't feel strong enough for too many visitors." But, really, that should go without saying if she is indeed a "well-wisher," i.e. someone who wishes you well.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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