DEAR AMY: As a child, I met my maternal grandmother only twice, when she visited with my aunt. My uncle called once or twice a year. I asked my mom about her absent family. She said, “Some families are just that way.” I let it go, but was always curious. At a recent, away-from-home conference I attended, I was taken aback to find my (estranged) aunt on a speaker panel! Two women sitting at my table knew my aunt and mom from high school 50 years ago. They were “chatty” and talked about what a smart, funny, warm person my aunt is. They talked about how she sacrificed and endured such hardship to care for my grandparents and uncle in the years before they died. (They weren’t aware that I am related to the people they were discussing.) They tsk-tsked about how sad it was that my aunt’s only remaining family (my mom) had abandoned her ill family members with hardly a look back. They described Mom as a narcissist, and told hurtful stories. I didn’t say anything, and left early, upset inside. I don’t blame my mom for wanting the freedom to create her own life not tied to ill family members. I also now understand how hard this must have been for my relatives, and especially for my aunt, who carried the load alone. My mother can be guarded and avoidant of conversations she doesn’t want to have. I don’t want to hurt her, but this bothers me. How can I discuss it without opening a can of worms?
Both Sides Now
DEAR BOTH SIDES: You don’t seem to have introduced yourself to your aunt — or disclosed your very close relationship to the woman your tablemates were gossiping about. I mention this to illustrate the very long tentacles of family estrangements.
It’s time to open the can. Your mother is guarded and avoidant when she doesn’t want to talk about something. Aren’t we all? I suggest that you introduce this by saying, “Mom, I want to have a conversation about our family. Please bear with me.” Then, you should fully disclose your experience at the conference. Tell her that you find this confusing and that you would like to understand these relationships from her perspective. Tell her, “I’m not judging you, but I want to understand why we don’t have contact. Can you tell me about it?”
You should decide whether you want to independently contact your aunt (I vote yes).
Read: “Healing From Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off From a Family Member,” by Mark Sichel (2004, McGraw Hill).
DEAR AMY: My daughter and her husband received a restaurant gift card from my wealthy sister. They went to pay using the card and the waiter came back to tell them the card had only $2 left on the $50 card. Because my daughter had just received the card, he told her to call the number on the back of the card. The company told her that the card was last used in 2015 for $48. So indeed, my sister, who likes to boast about her wealth, regifted a used gift card! My daughter asked me for my opinion. I told her that she should call her aunt and tell her, because I am sure she would want to make it right. My daughter says she is afraid to tell her, because she doesn’t want to embarrass her. How would you recommend she handle this?
DEAR PERPLEXED: Even if your sister “regifted” this card, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the card contains its stated value. It would be the equivalent of receiving a $50 bill from someone and then giving the bill to someone else. Why does it matter how your sister acquired this card, or how long she has held it?
Your daughter should simply tell her aunt, “When we went to use the card, we found out that it only has $2 value on it. I thought you should know.”
Being honest about this will give your sister an opportunity to correct this mistake. It would also spare her your harsh judgment.
DEAR AMY: Thank you for your compassionate advice to “Devastated Dad,” who was inclined to skip his estranged son’s high school graduation. I hope he accepts your gentle nudge not to give up on his son.
DEAR GRATEFUL: Healing from an estrangement is a long process. Showing up is the first step.