Dear Carolyn: My parents got divorced when I was in my mid-20s (now over a decade ago). My father married the woman with whom he was cheating on my mother. After the divorce, my father moved thousands of miles away. I have met the woman he married once, for an hour, and I will admit that I have judged her and think her morals are questionable (and frankly the divorce hurt me a lot, too). I have always been polite but never friendly.
Now my father is dying, and I have way more contact with her than I wish. She wants me to stay at their house and to share her grief with me. I just can’t share her grief (or stay at the house) and want to tell her she needs to rely on her own children to help her through this – they aren’t losing their father. Do I need to be a bigger person and do this? If I do, how do I do it? – Anonymous
I wish there were a specific Right Answer, with numbered instructions, so I could at least relieve you of the burden of making this choice. But the closest thing to a universal answer that I can offer still leaves the burden on you.
That answer is to project to when your father is gone, and imagine what decision will sit best with you. There are no do-overs here, that’s the nature of death – so now’s the time to strike a deal with yourself that you can live with.
Will you regret shutting your stepmother out, and come to see her as just a fellow loved one in need? Or will you regret indulging her, and come to grieve your integrity on top of grieving for Dad? Will you regret bringing your anger at your father to his grave, or will setting your anger aside leave you feeling suckered and used?
If you found grounds to forgive your stepmother, would that help you? Would it free up better memories of your dad? Will you regret leaving that decade-old sadness unsaid? Are you thinking for yourself, or as an extension of your mom?
Essentially, you’re weighing what is in your own best interests; be unflinchingly honest with yourself. And don’t worry about misreading your feelings. You might, but just knowing you brought your best effort to the decision will bring its own kind of peace.
In fact, the real risk is that you’ll mistake “self-interest” for a chance to take the easy way out. Ducking her, ducking the decision, hiding from your dad because you don’t want to deal with the stepmother issue – these are the choices that haunt. The right path is also a difficult one, or else you wouldn’t be feeling so torn.
It’s a paradox, but distilling your self-interest down to this purest form might reveal a selfless path.
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