Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2011
Her husband died so I came to help. Now they act like I don’t exist
Dear Mr. Tennis,
I am a 65-year-old woman who has had a long and interesting life. During a particularly “interesting” time (think job loss, forced relocation, job search) I found myself estranged from my eldest child, a daughter 40 years of age, who had recently become part of a new family. Long story short, we didn’t speak much, if at all, for the next three or four years.
Sadly, this all changed when her husband, my new son-in-law, became ill with a terminal cancer. At her urgent request, I moved from my home on the West Coast to their home on the East Coast in order to help during his illness and subsequent passing.
When that sad time came, I realized my daughter couldn’t survive financially without my input, so I offered to stay with her until her daughter went into college (about five or six years) and she herself had been able to get a nursing degree. We share the expenses of the household and then spend our own money as we please. There hasn’t been any controversy about any of this.
My problem is that I am beginning to feel as if I am unwanted here. Neither my daughter nor granddaughter make any effort to speak to me if I enter a room, to bid me farewell as they go to work and school, nor to greet me when they return to the house. I am starting to find that if I don’t speak to them first, they don’t talk to me at all. They don’t invite me to go to dinner with them when they go out, nor am I invited to shopping expeditions, or school events, or anything. This makes me feel as if I’m not really a family member, but only a stranger who happens to be renting a room from them. I am asked to ferry the grandchild to and from school meetings and sports events, but that’s the only time the child speaks to me, when she wants a ride. I know that they may feel that they want time together, and I don’t necessarily want to go, but they could at least ask me.
Due to this move, I have sold or given away almost every possession I had accumulated to make a home for myself. I have kept only a few books, pieces of art, and clothing. I know I don’t have the “possessions” I’d need to furnish a new place for myself, but that can be remedied. I also know it would be impossible for my daughter to support herself and her daughter if I left, so I feel as if I’m trapped by this obligation.
I don’t feel comfortable talking about this to my daughter, as I think I may become too emotional, and she doesn’t like it when I do that. (That is what happened four years ago.) I don’t want to find myself ostracized in what should be my own home, and shunned like some stranger, but this is rapidly what is happening.
How can I make this work?
Would it be possible for you to arrange a little outing with your daughter and granddaughter, someplace quiet by the water, under some trees, where the three of you could relax and the granddaughter could play? If possible, make it a couple of days. Spend the night. Get lots of sleep. Don’t do much. Rest.
This will only be a start, of course. It is important to remember that your daughter and granddaughter are both reeling from this event. They have lost something big that they cannot replace. They are feeling things they cannot control or ignore. They need some convalescence. This is going to take a while. You’ve done a good thing by coming here. But they are wrapped up in their grief and fear and it is not going to be easy. They aren’t going to snap out of this right away.
While it must be painful to feel ignored like this, try to remember that you came to this household to be of service to your daughter. She has had a terrible loss. It would be great if she had better coping skills and better manners but, crushed with grief, some of us lose even the barest courtesy.
They must grieve. Given the harsh and hurried way we live in America, and perhaps more so on the East Coast than the West, grief is often cut short, and we see the distortion this causes in many ways. If we do not grieve — that is, if we do not actively and with some determination move through the experience of loss and allow the loss to take a roomy place within us — then our loss will set about to destroy us. It will work to bring us to our knees until we acknowledge it and do what is necessary. Depression is one way this happens. Drug abuse and suicidal behavior are others. It is possible that your daughter is moving through a period of depression. We can’t know, of course. But we can allow for the possibility.
Where does that leave you? That leaves you in the position of elder matriarch who has journeyed a long way to be of service. You have had a long life and you have learned a lot. One of the things you have learned is patience. You’ve committed to being in this household for five or six years. If you create certain roles for yourself now, you may find that your daughter and your granddaughter slowly move into the shade of your presence.
You can be a refuge for the granddaughter, like a shade tree. She may take some time to see what you offer. Right now she is struggling just to follow her daily routine. It must be terrible, the way students are rushed through life, to have something like a father’s death to carry around. If you create spaces in which she can find what she needs, it’s possible she will respond. That’s why I am suggesting that you create this pastoral, serene setting where the three of you can go and heal. There are other similar things you can do. I’m thinking, prepare the setting and let this grief-stricken woman and girl move into those settings. Not much needs to be said. It’s not a talking, analysis kind of thing. You may not be thanked for it. But if you pay attention, you will notice that you are providing a space in which they can soften into their grief.
If you like to control things and come up with great new ideas that will fix everything, like I do, and if you find it hard to sit still when others don’t immediately see the brilliance of your many schemes and offerings, then you may have some difficulty just quietly giving, and creating serene, healing settings, without expectation of return. So consider that you will indeed get a return: Your return is in the fulfillment of your role as matriarch and elder. Your return will be private.
Overall, what I am suggesting is that you take some time to meditate on the gravity and duration of the situation and on your exalted but unrecompensed role. What you do now may become one of the crowning achievements of your life as a mother and now grandmother. If you summon all you have learned in your long and eventful life, you can get through this and emerge with some satisfaction and a serene sense of completion.
It won’t be easy. You’ll be taking some hits. But you can consider this the answering of a certain destiny.
It is only one destiny. It is demanding, but it need not be final. When you are done here — and you will be done here — there should be a long and sunny vacation awaiting you.