Death of Son Places Grandparents and Wife at Odds over Granddaughter

Reader’s Question

My 26-year-old daughter lost her husband in a motorcycle accident on Mother’s Day 2007. They have a daughter who was 4.5 months old at the time. Six months later she met a man and began a relationship with him. They have now moved across the country together. The new man is a very nice person and seems to care deeply for both my daughter and the baby. He is, however, military and as such is very regimented.

The problem is my daughter’s former in-laws. They were very good to her and the baby after their son’s death, providing a home, money, support, etc. My daughter has now started treating them very badly. They recently flew out to visit the baby for four days but were only allowed to see her for two. They were made to feel like they had to “walk on eggshells” around both my daughter and her significant other. It seems my daughter takes everything her in-laws do and say and turns it into “they try to tell me how to raise the baby”, “they don’t like my partner” “they don’t take our schedule into consideration”, etc. which is simply not true. I talk to her former mother-in-law regularly and she is heartbroken at being treated this way. She loves my daughter and misses the closeness they shared.

This is a complete turnaround of the way she has always felt about the in-laws, and it is hurting them so badly. They are so afraid that she will start denying them access to the baby and she is all they have left of their son (who was an only child). We are desperate for advice on how to handle this situation. Any advice you could give us would be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

As you’ve seen, this is a very complex situation. This is a family situation that contains a variety of factors that increase the sense of confusion, turmoil, and emotional reactions. For example:

  • The loss of a husband is emotionally devastating and often requires a lengthy bereavement. Your daughter began her new relationship in the middle of the bereavement period, something that often happens in a type of panic romantic connection — a desperate need to have someone. The new relationship met many of her emotional needs but at the same time developed in the middle of her on-going bereavement — something that now causes difficulties.
  • Her current partner, while he may be a nice individual, arrived when her life was in chaos. For a military man, this means he needed to take control of the situation. He has probably done that. That need to protect your daughter now makes the contacts with others more difficult.
  • Like your daughter, the grandparents have been emotionally devastated by the sudden loss of their son. In their bereavement, the hopes, dreams, and future of their son now rests in the presence of their only granddaughter. Like you, grandparents have a tremendous need to contribute and be involved in the life of their grandchildren. This normal emotional need is now amplified by the loss of their son and infrequent contacts with their only grandchild.
  • The family is currently haunted by a ghost…the memories of the deceased husband. Everyone involved, except the new partner, has intense “emotional memories” of this man — including memories related to his death. Everyone knows how a certain song can trigger memories of someone or a past situation. In this situation, your daughter’s memories of her deceased husband are triggered by contact with his parents, causing her to relive her grief and bereavement again. At the same time, the presence of the grandchild and your daughter trigger intense emotional memories in the grandparents as they remember their son and his prior family. Any contact with these two families is a traumatic memory reunion that makes everyone uncomfortable and hypersensitive.
  • These memories are intensified during normal conversation and create many awkward comments that are difficult for everyone to handle. The new partner is working on accepting the child as his daughter, while the grandparents make comments about how much she looks like their son. This would be normal for a grandparent to say, but would be offensive to the new partner.

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What can we do in such a situation? Some general themes:

  • Recognize that this is a very emotionally complex and intense situation. This is more than grandparents visiting their grandchild. Accept that special accommodations will be needed for all parties.
  • The grandparents should consider reading my Emotional Memory article. Using those strategies, they can understand how their contact and visits may be interpreted as offensive or intrusive. Knowing this, they should take an approach that is as “business” as possible. Make scheduled contacts with the granddaughter through the mom and new partner. Try to establish a relationship with the new partner as well as Mom. No parenting recommendations unless asked. Praise them for how well the daughter is doing and try not to mention their son. They’ll notice that the mention of their son will bring down an imaginary garage door in the middle of the conversation — that’s how emotional memory works.
  • Grandparents should consider a type of gradual reunification and connection. Due to the distance, if both parties have a good internet connection, I’d recommend scheduled webcam video calls with both parties using Skype or another free connection. The grandparents can offer a webcam as a holiday gift. This would allow scheduled video conferencing with the granddaughter with little emotional upheaval in both homes.
  • For your part as the concerned grandparent, encourage your daughter to understand the difficulties experienced by everyone at this time. Encourage her to allow contacts, on her terms at first, and remind her that everyone will be clumsy at this point. If you’re emotionally up to it, you can also volunteer to accompany the other grandparents on a “grandparents trip” to see the grandchild. These contacts will not be emotionally comfortable at all — due to the emotional memories — but if we can survive several contacts then the relationships have a chance of leveling out over time.
  • Support your daughter’s new partner and help him understand that the young daughter is now his responsibility, but that he has a lot of grandparent support that can be of help.
  • If your daughter continues to be upset, recommend marital counseling to help deal with the complex issues present in this situation.

Lastly, I would observe that everyone involved is blessed to have someone like you trying to help during such an emotionally difficult time.

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