Monday, January 26, 2015

In Grief: Family Resists Widow's Readiness to Move Forward

[Reviewed and updated November 13, 2022]

If [one's] character is to be abused, say what you will, there's nobody like a relative to do the business.  ~ William Makepeace Thackeray

A reader writes: I am looking for advice. Almost six years ago my husband of ten years and the father of my children died. The kids were ages 5 and 3 at the time, and now they are 11 and 9. Neither child has any physical memory of their father and almost all of their memories are based on my recollections. I re-partnered three years ago and we began living together in December last year.      
          My extended family members have all found it difficult to accept my new partner. As a result we have little or no contact, which is fine with me. I had always found my relationship with my family members very strained and had little to do with them during our marriage, so letting them go in the end was for me a relief.
          I don't want to end our relationship altogether, but I find it all too much to be reminded continually of my dead husband’s lively personality, along with my parents' insistence on putting him on a pedestal.
          I have been all but forgotten in the picture. I’m the one who picked up the pieces and all the thanks I get is constant judgment, criticism and insulting attitude. My children are exceptional; they have just changed schools and their new teachers are so impressed with their warm and genuine personalities and their ability to adapt to change—while my family thinks I have a screw loose and that I am ruining their lives. I just don't get it.
          Beyond all that, every time we do spend time with them the children are barraged with stuff about their father, which is nice if the context was consistent with their lives but it never is, and I don't think it is healthy to keep subjecting the children to this. I cringe at the thought of yet another Christmas with the ceremonial candle-lighting experience. Sadly these people need to have a candle to remember my dead husband, but I object to them expecting us to respect that. We live each and every day with our loss—Christmas and birthdays don't change that for us.
          How do I express this to the people in our lives who simply do not understand? I don't like these celebrations and I don't want to be around them. I know that if I could only educate them things would change—but they just don't want to know or understand. I am at the point where I am ready to cut off any previous connections with my own extended family! It seems that the main reason is that I have moved on and no-one else came too. Do you have any suggestions that might help me resolve this situation?

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the difficulties you're having with your extended family members. Of course I have no magic answers for you, but I will share with you what I think.

It seems to me that, if you truly believe that you've already done all you can to "educate" these individuals, all to no avail, then the more you continue to try, the worse it may become.

I don't know what your family's relationship was like with your late husband or how attached they were to him, I don't know what's behind their need to keep his memory alive for you and your children, regardless of what you may feel or need at this point in your own life, and I don't know why they find it so difficult to accept the man who is in your life now.

Perhaps they mean well, their motivation is pure and they're operating out of a genuine concern for your welfare and that of your children. Whatever their needs, feelings, opinions and motivation, however, they belong to them, not to you, and you are not obligated to share them or to agree with them. 

You say you've tried to enlighten them "but they just don't want to know or understand." If that is the casethat despite your best efforts to enlighten them, your family refuses to see things from your perspective or to respect your point of viewand if being around them brings you nothing but pain and discomfortthen you can choose to limit your contacts with them and look instead to others who are more understanding to find the support you need.

You cannot force other people to change and you cannot "make" others do what you want them to dobut you certainly can control with whom you choose to spend your time, and you certainly can control how you respond to your family members when circumstances are such that you (or your children) are in their presence.

For your children's sake, I think it would be sad if you decided to cut off completely all contacts with your extended family membersthese are your children's grandparents and relatives, after allbut that is a choice for you alone to make.

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