Dear Captain Awkward,
After a three year-long battle with a rare form of cancer, my Mom passed away a few weeks ago. Don’t worry, Team Me has been assembled and regular doses of Chinese food, dark chocolate, Monty Python, and silent horror films have been, and continue to be, implemented. Now, however, begins the hard part of getting back into daily life without her and informing/dealing with everyone else. They are all lovely and well-meaning people, but fielding their well wishes is exhausting, and the origin of my problem.
Mom, who is my mother in all of the really really important ways, is not my biological mom. The story behind it is very long, but the cliffnote version is: abusive step-father, police get involved, Biological Mother takes his side and uses my personal diaries against me at the trial, Dad and wonderful step-mother (Mom) sweep in to take in my sister and I and pick up the pieces. Mom is Mom, and nothing will change that.
There is a healthy mixture of friends and acquaintances who do and do not know about this (not that it’s a BIG SECRET, I just…don’t talk about it much). Other siblings still have a relationship with Biological Mother, and I see/talk to her maybe once or twice a year, so I cannot simply pretend that she does not exist. So, question one: what are some scripts I can use when people ask me why Mom is not my biological mom and want to know about my strained relationship with Biological Mother? I don’t mind telling them, but I want to do so in a way that answers their question about Mom without going into the whole story, and simultaneously tell them Biological Mother is not up for discussion. I only discuss that with Team Me, and no one else.
Also, in light of Mom’s death, some members of my family have been pressuring my sister and I to forgive, forget, and reconcile with Biological Mother. That is NOT HAPPENING. She has a lot to explaining and apologizing to do before any of it can be considered, and until then, she gets to live with rare, strained, and superficial visits. Of course these family members bring this up in front of my mourning Dad, so out of consideration for him I can’t respond to them in various forms of “fuck no, and also, not your fucking business.” So, question two: what are some scripts that I can use that will politely tell them Not Happening, None of Your Business, and Don’t Ask Ever Again?
PS: Quick follow-up question, in light Mother’s Day, what can I tell unknowing people who innocently ask me what I’m doing for my Mom on Mother’s Day?
I Miss Mom
This isn’t the good news, but maybe it’s comforting a little: You’re not the only person for whom Mother’s Day is “Holy shit is that a fraught and complicated subject of conversation” day. So while I am so sorry for your loss and the occasion of it, I appreciate the very timely question.
Let’s work in reverse. When people who don’t know the story ask what you’re doing for Mother’s Day, tell them the truth:
“I’m still grieving for her, so I’ll be spending the day with some close friends.”
The vast majority of people will say a variation of “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” which, if you’ve just buried a Loved One, you know how to deal with like a pro by now – Recently Bereaved Autopilot*: Activate! People who are also grieving for their moms won’t have asked you the question in the first place, but in the off chance one does, you can commiserate. That leaves the very, very small number of people who know that you have a Bio-Mom and know that she’s alive and who also prioritize satisfying their curiosity. You can just stare blankly at those people and repeat “My mom passed recently, so I’ll be remembering her with a few close friends” and don’t worry too much about whether they get it or what they think. You don’t have to draw your family tree for everyone who asks.
Now, let’s help you create the short version of why you called this particular lady “Mom.” Once again, go with the plain truth.
“My stepmother and my dad raised me after my biological mom remarried. She and I became very close, and I consider her to be my ‘mom.‘”
Perceptive people will sense the iceberg of dark history beneath those brief sentences, but most will not ask you anything more about it. If people press you for more details and you don’t feel like giving them, you can always go with “Obviously it’s a long and complicated story, I don’t really feel like telling it now. Maybe some other time.” (Hint: Some other time = probably never!) Anyone who keeps pushing you after that (even if they mean well) is officially a Being A Jerk and you don’t have to be polite or answer any questions. Excuse yourself from the conversation.
On to your relatives! I am frankly aghast at someone who would say “Now that the person you loved most in the world has been dead for a couple of weeks, howabout you make up with the woman who publicly and brutally chose her abusive husband over you so that we all feel like you have somewhere to send a Mother’s Day card and don’t have to feel bad about what happened anymore?”
So let’s go with “aghast” and keep sticking with that plain, blunt truth we’ve been working with. And let go of the idea that if you respond honestly that you’re being impolite or the one making it weird. Use as few words as possible, do not apologize, do not explain yourself, do not repeat yourself. Let it get AWK-WARD. Let them be the ones to back away from you slowly or rush to change the subject.
“Wow.” (+ awkward, freezing silence).
“Do you really expect me to have a conversation about this RIGHT NOW?” (+ awkward, freezing silence)
“That is so not a question I feel like talking about today.” (+ awkward, freezing silence).
“I’m sorry, what did you just ask me? I didn’t quite catch it. Could you repeat that, please?” (+ awkward, freezing silence) (Bonus points if you make them repeat it 3 or 4 times until they get embarrassed and shut up).
“I’m sorry, that’s something I only discuss with people who are very close to me. Let’s change the subject.” (+ awkward, freezing silence)
And, as a bonus, to give you something to fantasize about: “I will never forget what happened and what she did. If I do forgive, it won’t be because people pressured me in order to make themselves feel a little better, and it certainly won’t happen while I’m grieving the woman who became my real mom, so please take five steps back and change the subject, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
I know that last one feels awful and rude, but it has the benefit of delivering the message you want to give as directly and completely as possible. I hope you spend Sunday surrounded with people and things you love and I’m glad you have a good plan. It sounds like you were lucky to have the Mom you did, and your dad was lucky to have her, and you.
*Recently Bereaved Autopilot:
People who love you want to let you know, but often they don’t know what to say and it gets overwhelming and weird. Some variation of “Thanks for your kind words. I loved her very much.” – will usually get the job done. If your mom knew and liked the person giving the wishes? Try “Thank you so much for your kind words. She always loved you (or x detail about you).”
And you get to say “Thank you so much. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now, can we talk later?” – if that’s the truth, that’s the truth, and people will MORE than understand. You don’t have to be Good At Grieving. Absolve yourself completely from taking care of other people around this.