Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother Not Wanted at Memorial Service

My sister Nora recently died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Nora’s son Ted was married to Carla; they are the parents of 10-year-old twins, Eddie and Mac, who were very close to Nora and are heartsick over the loss of their grandmother (their paternal grandfather died long before they were born). Nora confided in me more than once that she never really liked Carla and wasn’t surprised to learn that Carla had been cheating on Ted from the beginning of their marriage. In fact, Nora was glad when Ted and Carla divorced two years ago (and a messy and nasty divorce it was!); they have shared custody.

In a few weeks there will be a memorial service for Nora. Carla’s parents, who are loving and wonderful grandparents to the twins, have been very upset through the years with Carla’s unseemly behavior. Throughout everything they have remained close to both Ted and the twins. Here’s the problem: A couple of days ago they, Carla’s parents, called Ted to tell him that Carla plans on attending Nora’s memorial service. Although they will be attending, they told Carla they didn’t think it was a good idea for her to attend, but Carla said she wants to be there for the twins.

Ted has asked me to take care of this and make sure Carla does not attend Nora’s memorial service. He said he knows his mother wouldn’t want her there, and he certainly doesn’t want her there. I am not quite sure what to do. 

What a profoundly sad time for you and your family. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy.

Whether it is a demonstration of sensitivity or just happenstance on Carla’s part, it is fortunate she has given advance notice of her intentions and will not just show up at Nora’s memorial service, a situation that could have been awkward and unpleasant during an already difficult time. Her parents were correct in letting Ted know: this way there can be some forethought and planning.

I think the most helpful thing you can do is help Ted understand that he is the one who must decide whose needs and preferences are going to be met in this tragic situation, as several of you have varying and conflicting needs when it comes to Carla’s pronouncement about attending the memorial service.

For example, it is understandable, especially in view of their acrimonious divorce, that Ted’s need is to surround himself with people he cares about and care about him, and that he not have Carla present. Your need is to provide comfort and support to Ted by trying to do whatever he needs you to do: in this case he has asked you to stop Carla from attending. Also, part of your need may be to carry out what you and Ted both assume would be Nora’s preference, that is, Carla not attend her service. You obviously cannot be sure about this point as Nora was never explicit, but I do think it is time to stop talking about what Nora would want or not want regarding Carla’s attendance because it is just conjecture and needlessly fuels emotions.

Other involved parties include Carla’s parents, who would like all potential for conflict to be avoided; they, too, prefer their daughter not attend. And finally, we have Carla who says she wants to be at the memorial service for the sake of the twins. If this were a straight up-and-down vote, there would be four against Carla attending (you, Ted, and Carla’s parents) with Carla voting yea on her own behalf.

When you asked for my advice you gave me voting rights: I vote with Carla and I hope to convince you, Ted and her parents to stop trying to get her to change her mind about attending. I feel this way because the most important people in this situation are the twins and Carla is clear that the focus should be on what is best for them. Yes, Carla proved to be a poor wife for Ted, but this does not necessarily mean she is a bad mother. The fact is that she is the twins’ mother and she will always be their mother, so her wanting to be available to her boys at the memorial service needs to be taken seriously. Carla knows she will be frostily treated by many at the service, yet she is obviously willing to endure this to fulfill what she sees as her role as the boys’ mother.

If Carla attends the service, and if you can bring yourselves to do it, I suggest you and Ted greet Carla by simply saying, “Thank you for being here for Eddie and Mac.” If she chooses to sit with the family and the twins, so be it. Other people in attendance may make judgments about her being there, but you are not obligated to give explanations. Many might conclude that Carla is trying to do the right thing by her boys; most will respect your gracious acceptance of her presence. I hope you can take comfort in knowing you’ve made it easier for the twins to participate in their grandmother’s memorial service by having their mother next to them or close by.

If Ted is not able to go this route and is adamant about Carla not attending, then I suggest that he, and not you, be the one to communicate this to Carla, even if he does it in writing. This is an issue between Ted and Carla, and as well meaning and helpful as you may want to be, you don’t want to put yourself in the position of being the one who prevented their mother’s attendance in the eyes of the twins. This decision rightly belongs to the twins’ parents, Carla and Ted.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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