A reader writes: Two years ago my husband of 50 years died in his sleep, suddenly and unexpectedly. We have three grown children who live near our home, and for that, I am truly blessed. Our eldest son is single, our daughter is a single parent with a 16 year old son, and our younger son is married with two boys, ages 5 and 2. Both my husband and I were brought up in homes that never had pets and nobody ever asked for one. We raised our three children in homes with no pets and nobody ever asked to have a pet. So we do not know pet protocol and, of course, we’ve never experienced the death of a pet.
My younger son and his wife had three dogs and a cat. About one year ago, one of their dogs died and I acknowledged that with flowers and a note. About two weeks after the dog's death, my son called me to say that they had heard nothing from his brother or sister about the death of their dog and he and his wife were really hurt. I suggested that he call each of them to tell them about his disappointment. He told me later that he had long phone conversations and he was sure that they understood about their grief and sounded like they had much compassion. Then two or three months ago, another of their dogs died and I followed up with a sympathy card and phone calls. I was told that my older son called more than once and my daughter sent a sympathy card, but never called. (She is a single mom who commutes to work, teaches full-time and is consumed with paper work, lesson plans, maintaining a home and yard, and raising a wonderful teenager.)
Two or three weeks later, I invited the family over for a Saturday breakfast. My older son called me the next day to say that he and his family would not be coming. He had decided that he couldn’t be in the same room with his sister because of her lack of concern for them when she hadn’t called them about the death of now another dog. He really felt that she understood last year when he called her that she would understand their grief. To this day, he and his wife have not spoken to my daughter. He has split our family apart, but he does not see it that way. These two have never been close, and therein lies a big family problem. When my son entered his freshman year in high school, his sister was away at college for her freshman year, so they really have not been together a lot. My daughter always asks about her brother and his family and she suspects that something is wrong ~ but she says she is not going to call them because she is tired of trying to please them.
When I asked my son to come over to talk about this, we had what I thought was a good talk, but really came to no understanding. When I asked him if he realized what a strain he had put on our family, he said that he did and maybe he would not be mad forever, but he has no intentions of calling his sister and I am in the middle of this.
Bottom line: Are my son’s expectations normal regarding his disappointment that his sister has not made at least one phone call since the death of their dog? I think she thought she had done what was expected of her when she sent a sympathy card. What I keep remembering is that this is the son who never called me after his dad's funeral. When I discussed that with him during "our talk", he apologized. Amazingly, since that discussion, he has not called me to say hi or to see what's new, like he used to do before he had a wife to do that. Our family keeps a lot of emotions inside of them; my daughter-in-law’s family does not.
I was at my son’s home for dinner last night. It went well, but I am so very careful to say nothing that might give them reason to find fault with me. Last Friday, my DIL and I agreed not to discuss again this situation between us because it solves nothing. She may not realize it, but she just "rants and raves" at me and makes me cry. I am so torn up that I "walk on egg shells" around everybody in our little family. And I realize that I don't have a shoulder to cry on or my best friend to discuss this. I am trying my best to try to understand how this family became dysfunctional when I thought that we were a loving and caring family. Oh, yes, my younger son knows about this because I broke down one day when he was at the house, but he does not want to get in the middle of this and he also feels that I should not be burdening him with these problems. That is why I will no longer tell him what is going on with this situation, and why I am "dumping" on you. Is there any hope here? I spend a lot of time praying and, hopefully, the day will come when my prayers will be answered.
My response: Oh my dear one ~ life certainly gets complicated, doesn't it, when our children grow up, get married, and extend our original well-run, loving and caring little nuclear families to include all those others, whose upbringing, background, traditions, expectations and ways of doing things are so different from our own! I feel so bad for you, and I can completely identify with what you are experiencing. I have two grown sons whom I love dearly, and I too thought I had raised a close-knit, loving and caring little family that would always be happy together ~ but once my sons got married, everything changed, and most of it has not turned out the way I ever expected it to be.
I always had this fantasy that when my sons got married and had children of their own, naturally I would be regarded as the matriarch of our extended family, and I would be accorded the deference and respect that I had earned and deserved. Certainly I thought that my opinions, experience and wisdom as a wife and mother (and now grandmother) would be valued, and that my opinions and feelings in a given situation would matter to my sons and their wives. I learned very quickly that my daughters-in-law do not see it that way at all. Of course my sons’ first loyalty now belongs to their wives, and their wives and families come first ~ which is as it should be ~ but wow! It certainly can be hard to take sometimes, especially if said wives are strong-willed, independent and forceful personalities who want to “call the shots”and make the rules in their own close-knit little families!
You note that after your husband died, your eldest son and daughter (both of whom are single) “called constantly and stopped in often,” but your younger son “never called to inquire” about how you were doing ~ apparently he left that up to his wife to do. (It’s been my experience that with most married sons, this is not at all unusual.) Knowing your children as you do, however, you did your best to accept and appreciate whatever sympathy and attention was given to you from each of them, without expecting anything more than they were willing to give. What is more, when each of these pet deaths occurred in your son’s family, even though you’re not a “pet person” yourself, as the family matriarch you did your best to do what you thought was expected of you by offering sympathy and support to his family, and you modeled that and conveyed that expectation to your other two children as well. Thinking (or at least hoping) that all was well, that everyone was satisfied and everyone’s needs were met, you tried to bring your extended family all together for a breakfast, only to discover that, despite your very best efforts, there is still trouble afoot in what is supposed to be your close-knit, loving and caring family. What to do?
Obviously, you’re a very good mother who’s doing your level best to love your kids unconditionally and to accept each one of them exactly as they are. In reading your story, it seems to me that your intentions are pure, you are doing everything right and you’ve pretty much done all that you can do. You’ve modeled to all three of your children your willingness to share your concerns openly and honestly with them, while respecting and preserving everyone’s confidence and privacy. You don’t play your children one against the other; you want everyone’s feelings to be honored and understood, everyone’s needs to be met, and your only objective is to preserve harmony in the family.
Unfortunately, however, you can only do so much ~ you cannot “make” anyone else behave the way you want them to behave, and you cannot “make” them want the same harmony that you value and desire. These children of yours are grown-up people, and they will do what they will do, regardless of how you feel about it. The only behavior over which you have control is your own, and from all you’ve told me, I think you’ve behaved admirably and honorably in this situation. I truly don’t know what you could have done differently or what more you can do now, except to continue to bear it with all the patience, dignity and grace you can muster.
You ask if your son’s expectations are normal regarding his disappointment at how his sister reacted to his loss of these two dogs. While we're all distinct individuals and everyone grieves in his own way, I’m sure you know from your own experience that when our loved one has just died, when we are in the freshest pain of grief, no matter who or what we’ve lost, we are especially vulnerable and overly sensitive to the words and behavior of others, we are easily hurt, and we’re often very disappointed in how other people respond to us.
The truth is that nothing anyone else can say will make us feel any better, because all we really want is to have our loved one back, and no one can make that happen. When we are in this state of mind, I’m not sure that our expectations of others are very realistic. Unless we’re surrounded by others who have experienced the same or a similar loss, it’s unlikely that anyone can truly understand what our pain feels like. Over time, however, as our pain diminishes and our hearts begin to heal, we usually become more willing to forgive those who failed to live up to our expectations, especially if we want to maintain a relationship with them. As your son told you, “maybe he would not be mad [at his sister] forever.”
You know your son better than I do, and you know your daughter as well. You also know the history of their relationship with each other, and I suspect that how each of them is reacting to this latest incidence of pet loss has more to do with that than anything else. You say that they’ve never been close “and therein lies a big family problem.” So it sounds as if this rift between these two has been there for a very long time, despite your wanting it to be otherwise. Since they’re both adults now, how they choose to relate to each other is really up to them, and way beyond your control, especially if your daughter-in-law is encouraging your son to take sides with her against his sister. Certainly you can continue to encourage everyone in your family to communicate their concerns directly to one another, rather than allowing any one of them to use you as a lightning rod or go-between. As your eldest son observes, it does no good for him or you to get caught in the middle of this. I think whenever you’re with any one of your children or your daughter-in-law, you need to stay as neutral as possible about all of these matters, and practice saying something like this: “You know, dear, I’m so sorry you feel that way, but that is between you and so-and-so, and I think you need to take it up with that person. I love you very much and I’ll support you in any way I can, but I just can’t take sides here, and I think it’s best that I just stay out of it completely.”
You said, “I realize that I don’t have a shoulder to cry on or my best friend to discuss this,” and I would imagine that this is probably the most difficult part of all of this for you. When your husband died, you lost all the leadership, protection, emotional support, friendship and companionship he provided. You lost your closest confidant, the one person you could trust to be on your side and see your point of view, to help you sort things out, to comfort you, to reassure you that you’re doing your best and that you really are a good person and a wonderful mother no matter how your kids are acting now.
I don’t know what sort of support you had when your beloved died or what support you have around you now, but I hope that in addition to your children you have a close friend or relative, a neighbor or someone in your church community whom you trust and with whom you can share your experiences and concerns as a widow and as a mother of adult children who don't always get along with one another. Much as you love your children and grandchildren, they cannot take the place of your spouse who has died. Family togetherness is fine, but in addition to your children, who get so caught up in their own busy lives and problems, and whose interests and concerns are so different from your own, you still need and deserve the support of someone who is there just for you, who can focus on and better understand your experiences, and who can relate to your particular circumstances.
Since your husband died nearly two years ago, I'm aware that you are approaching the two-year anniversary of his death. I don’t know where you are in your own grief journey, but two years is not a very long time at all, and I hope you are taking good care of yourself as you do the work of mourning. I hope you will spend some time on my Grief Healing website. See especially the links to the articles and resources I’ve listed on my Death of a Spouse page. You might also consider joining our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups and participating in our Loss of a Spouse forum.
In any event, I hope I’ve answered your questions, my dear, and I wish you all the best.
Afterword: Good morning, Marty! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I apologize for the delay in responding to your welcome message. I was away with a busload of senior citizens. And I must do more of this. I realize that I must make an effort from now on to spend more time with people my own age, and less time with family or by myself. The change of scenery did wonders for me, and I am going to make plans to get out of my home more often this summer.
Anyway, I have read your message more than once and treasure the words. I know that I am not alone regarding family situations, but it truly helped me to understand what I am going through by just hearing that other mothers might have "situations" with their offspring and in-laws. Yes, I do have a supportive sister-in-law who is a nurse in a Crisis Center in another state. She and my brother have five adult children, all married, and she shares some family stories with me when we get together. It is good to have reassurances that I am not alone.
Some weeks after my husband died, my cousin in California (a widow of three years) sent me the following sentiments. In your line of business, you may know about this one, but in case you have not, I want to share it with you because it has helped me.
Grief never ends but it changes.Again, a sincere thank you for your words. I feel better knowing that somebody understands me.
It is a passage, not a place to stay.
The sense of loss must give way if we are to
value the life that was lived. ~ Author unknown
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH