Adapted from a recent online discussion.
My mother died a few months ago. My children, who are in their 20s, adored her. They do not know she was abusive to me and my sisters when we were growing up. I don’t really want to disillusion them, but it is really hard to listen to them talk about how awesome Grandma was. Is there anything neutral I can say?
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— Remembering Grandma
DEAR REMEMBERING GRANDMA: By neutral, you mean honest without upsetting anyone?
If so, that sounds like a vestige of your abusive childhood: Instead of living honestly, you’re living with keen attention to the potential cost of living honestly. That’s a legacy no one deserves.
If you were my parent, I would want you to tell me your truth. I would want you to say that you held this back so I could have my own relationship with Grandma, and explain that you did this without fully appreciating how much it would hurt you to watch this plan succeed. I would also hope you’d be patient if I react emotionally, and trust me to come around to gratitude for knowing. I’d also want you to be ready if I tell you that Grandma also was abusive to me, but that I wasn’t comfortable sharing this, until now.
If you have grounds to believe your kids won’t receive the news this way, then I suggest enlisting the help of a good, reputable family therapist. If there’s any chance of fallout — if experience tells you that your kids don’t handle gray areas well — then exploring your options with a trained guide is a reasonable exercise in self-care, the value of which you apparently learned the hard way.
I made clear to my daughter that even though my mother was abusive toward me, it didn’t mean she wasn’t a terrific grandmother to her. I’d like to believe that my mother recognized her awful behavior and made my daughter’s life better by being part of it. Telling the truth about your history doesn’t have to change your children’s perspective of their grandmother unless you are forcing the issue.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Love this, thank you.
It’s also possible to be a terrible parent, and then mature and become a really great grandparent. I’ve seen it happen.
I don’t understand the point of bringing this up now. If you didn’t think it was important enough to address when it might have been useful for your kids — because grandma might have been abusive to them also — what’s the point in doing it now? I can’t see one.
— Anonymous 2
DEAR ANONYMOUS 2: I can. This will help them understand their parent, possibly for the first time ever.
It’s huge, and important, and not just about Grandma. It’s also possible to regard something as better left unsaid, then decide later that it’s better to say it. Our relationship to the world and to each other is fluid, not fixed.
Grandma taught us to hide who we are. However, I thought your advice was very good. Thank you.
— Remembering Grandma again
DEAR REMEMBERING GRANDMA AGAIN: I’m sorry Grandma did that to you; I can only imagine what she was taught. Here’s to surviving such legacies, breaking cycles and consigning them to history.