My mother in-law recently passed away.  It was a shock to many of us, as we thought we’d at least get to see her once more during the holidays.  I’ve been struggling with dealing with my sadness and grief over the loss, while also trying to come to terms with the fact that I had to put up with her not-so-kind words about my kids and me, her passive-aggressiveness, and just feeling like she never fully liked/embraced me or my side of the family as a part of hers.  I am a woman of color, and my husband’s family is white, so my kids and I visibly stand out when we’re with them.

My in-laws always treated my parents like they were beneath them, or just didn’t make any efforts to get to know them, communicate with them, etc.  It has been a source of pain and sadness for me over the years, especially since my parents/family have always made efforts to reach out, communicate or connect with them, treating them like they were family.  Maybe it’s a cultural difference, but in my family, when someone gets married, that person’s spouse and his/her family become a part of our family as well.  I have seen how my in-laws made more of an effort and were just more interested in connecting with my husband’s sister’s in-laws/family when she got married, so I don’t think it’s entirely cultural.

I’m grateful for what she gave us, and for her positive qualities. I want my kids to love their grandma, and of course remember good things about her, but I also want to someday share a more complete and honest picture of her when they are older.  Is that inappropriate or wrong?   I don’t want to dishonor her memory but I also don’t feel right going along with all the glorifying of her as this perfect saint.

I haven’t even talked to my husband about all the things she has said and done throughout the years.  I think he would not want to hear it anyway, particularly now that she’s gone.

What would you recommend I do to deal with my conflicting emotions around all this?

–Confused and Torn (Canada)


Great job at looking at a challenging situation of grieving for and honoring a woman who perhaps didn’t know how to love like you do.

First of all, keep in mind that. no matter what else she did or didn’t do, she created your husband and therefore your children, none of whom would have existed in their exact form without her.

Intuitively, I feel that there are two key issues in how your mother treated you and your family: 1) conscious and subconscious racism and 2) perfectionistic expectations towards her son’s wife. Some mothers have a very difficult time with any woman (even of the same ethnic background) living up to what she believes her son deserves. This combined with a conscious (and not) value placed on men over women (including her own value of herself) combined to create this very challenging situation.

I agree with your assessment that it might not be the best idea to talk to your husband about this now that she is gone. I think it’s important to give yourself an honest channel to communicate this, however. Perhaps you might want to journal about it for yourself or to talk about it with a friend (preferably that had no connection to your mother-in-law) in a way that you can release speak freely and honestly about your feelings (the grief of losing her as well as the grief you experienced in relating with her) and experiences you had with her so you don’t hold all the grief and the energy inside of you.

As far as sharing the whole story with your kids, it’s probably not necessary. Maybe you could just share the positive stories with them and always bring it back to the fact that because she gave birth to your husband, you were able to meet him and to then have your kids eventually. If they ask specific questions when they’re older, or even have questions on how to deal with their own mother-in-law, perhaps at that point, you could generally mention some of your experiences in a way that is constructive and can assist them in working through similar issues.

Also, take good care of yourself and let yourself really feel all of the conflicting feelings coming up for you and let them go to make more space for more joy in your life and validation of all that you’ve learned through this relationship.

You also might want to use this experience as practice living the truth of the necessity of loving and honoring yourself, no matter what anyone else thinks of you or how they treat you. Do this and it will help your children to learn the same by watching you.

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