Preferred pronouns: they/them
I found out a few weeks ago that my grandmother was in the hospital due to an illness. This surprised me, but I also knew she was getting older. I decided I needed to start thinking if I wanted reconciliation.
When I was around 12 or 13, I purposefully discontinued all contact with her. This was for a lot of reasons. She had never really been involved in the life of my brother or me. She’d drive hours to see my cousins, but would never even call us on our birthdays.
The point of no return for pre-teen me was when I heard she had been speaking badly of my mother (her daughter) over my parents’ divorce (which happened when I was 10). I had heard this a few times, but it hit me especially hard since my mother had finally taken the time to tell me about the physical abuse she’d endured growing up.
My only act of discontinuing contact was to be the one to stop calling. For more than a decade, she has never once called. I had planned on telling her that I no longer wanted to speak to her when she finally called, but it never once came.
Over the years, my mother sought reconciliation and gave forgiveness to my grandmother. I know there’s still issues, but she is grateful for the relationship they have. Still, I’ve never forgiven my grandmother or looked back. Her relationship has, frankly, never been that important to me. It has been important to my brother, he took the time to invite her to his high school graduation and graduation party. She never showed up and it broke his heart.
With the news of her sickness after a particularly bad day in a particularly bad week, I made the mistake of posting a general sort of complaint about my week on social media and added a single sentence of “I found out this week an estranged family member is ill and may need to think about reconciliation”. I was trying to be vague given the sensitive nature of her hospitalization, but my family knows that I haven’t spoken to her since I was young, by choice. (I am not friends with my grandmother on social media.)
I found out a half an hour later that the diagnosis had come: cancer. It didn’t look good, either. Between calling to comfort my mother and brother late into the night, the whole post slipped my mind.
The next morning, my cousin replied very inappropriately and we spoke over messenger about the situation. I knew she was just upset over the diagnosis and tried to be gentle, but firm. I wasn’t going to let her hurt me because she was hurting, but I certainly didn’t want to kick someone who was down. My aunt called my mom later and said she had just been grieving and hadn’t meant to be cruel to me (as I guessed).
During the conversation, however, I realized that actually, I definitely did not want to forgive my grandmother and that I would not regret that decision. I obviously did not vocalize this to my clearly upset cousin, but it struck me then.
Since then, my family has been passive aggressively trying to show me she still cares about my brother and me (such as sending me a photo of my grandmother’s shelf with old photos of us still there and gifts we gave her). I’m worried they told her I was considering calling.
On the one hand, I have never needed her in my life because she’s never tried to be in it. On the other hand, she’s a dying woman who has brought joy and love to at least some of my family and seems to want the comfort of family during what may be the final months of her life. I don’t want to crush any hope she may have for that comfort, but I also don’t want to be insincere or lie.
I know that if I tell my mom, she will communicate my decision to my family (she has always understood my choice and never pushed my brother or me one way or the other). I’m trying to be there for them at a difficult time in their life, but I’m not sure I can be there by coming to some peace with my grandmother that I just do not have (and probably never will).
I’m hoping for advice on how to talk to my cousins about this decision without making their process of grief over the illness of a loved one worse.
Dear Not Sorry,
It’s very likely that there is a working phone in your grandmother’s hospital room.
There are family members going in and out of your grandmother’s hospital room all the time, and they 100% have cell phones with them.
If your grandmother wanted a pen and paper and a stamp and your mailing address, someone in her periphery could get her these things. (See also: Email).
My point being: If it’s so very important for your grandmother to reconcile with you in some way before she dies, she has the same ability she’s always had to reach out and get in touch with you.
Also, when you were a child and she was an adult, she (the person with way more responsibility and agency in this matter) chose to cut off contact with you. Yes, you had also chosen to cut off contact with her, but she didn’t know that! The woman hasn’t spoken a direct word to you since you were in junior high, and now it’s suddenly so fucking important that you show up and somehow “forgive” her on her deathbed?
You don’t have to forgive people who have never apologized to you.
You don’t have to “make things right” with someone who has never sought resolution in the first place.
Forgiveness can be healing. Guess what? Forgiveness can take the form of “I wish you well and release you from any obligations to me and vice versa. I hereby declare ‘bygones’ between us…from a safe distance that does not mean inviting you back into my life.”
If your grandma reaches out to you directly and asks for a reconciliation, you can make a decision about what to do then. Maybe it’s worth 15 minutes of your time to lay everything to rest between you. Maybe it’s not.
In the meantime, cut out the middlefolks. You don’t have to say anything or do anything to manage the feelings of the rest of your family right now. You can politely ignore or deflect them when they bring it up. You can unfollow their social media feeds for a while if you don’t want the updates. You also don’t have to issue some kind of final statement through your mom.
First, when the topic of Grandma comes up, think in terms of platitudes that put all the focus back on them. “I know you were close, it must be very hard for you to think about losing her.” “Cancer is a devastating illness, I’m so sorry to hear she’s ill.” “It’s good that you’re able to be with her.”
If your aunt and cousin and others persist in pushing a reconciliation despite your polite deflections, you can say, directly:
“She’s never asked me for that. It’s not on you to manage our relationship, especially when you have so little time left with her. I know you want to do a good thing here, but please just focus on being there for her, and don’t worry about me.”
“I know you’re grieving but it’s not your job to try to fix this. Please let it go.”
If they say:”But she has photos of you and the tiny presents you’ve given her in her hospital room! Clearly she’s thinking of you!”
You can say: “Having nostalgia for me as a tiny kid isn’t the same thing as a relationship. Grandma hasn’t been in touch with me since I was a teenager, and I’ve respected her wishes to keep her distance. I know you’re grieving, but it’s not your job to try to fix this. She’s always had the ability to get in touch with me if she wanted to, and she’s 100% chosen not to be a part of my life. I don’t want to add to the grief you’re feeling right now, but I need you to let this go.”
See also: “I need to grieve* in my own way. Please respect that.”
*You may not be grieving at all, or your grieving may take the form of grieving for the loving grandmother relationship you wished you had, or it may come out in some weird unpredictable form you don’t even know yet. Who knows? The point is to make a statement that can’t really be argued with that gets people to back off.
It’s understandably painful for the rest of your family to think about the fact that the version of Grandma they know is different from the one you know. It introduces cognitive dissonance -“How can the lovely woman who was at every birthday party and choir show and sporting event for me just skip out on my cousins like that?” “How can this woman that I know to be so good have abused her daughter?” The sad truth is that people can show one face to certain people and a whole different face to other people, even within the same family. It’s not your job – the job of someone who was a child at the time, who was a victim of your grandmother’s indifference to you and your brother as human beings, who watched her break your mom’s heart and your brother’s heart and your own heart – to fix that dissonance for other people in your family at the expense of your own well-being.
When she dies, be there for your mom. She’ll need you. Send your aunt & cousin a sympathy card. In the meantime, you’re allowed to close the door on the woman who closed all her doors on you.