My friends, Sally and Mark, never saw their grandchildren (ages five and seven) until a year ago. The family estrangement happened nine years ago when Sally and Mark’s son, Ronnie, was getting married to Emily.
Ronnie and Emily had planned their wedding to take place on a cruise ship with family and some close friends in attendance. Then, three weeks before the wedding, Sally’s mother (Ronnie’s grandmother), who suffered from congestive heart failure for many years, took a turn for the worse. The hospital staff said she most likely was not going to survive. Sally told Ronnie and Emily that she and Mark would not be leaving her mother’s side.
Ronnie asked his parents what he should do about the wedding plans and Sally said, “You need to do what you need to do.” Ronnie and Emily decided to go ahead with their wedding on the cruise ship. While they were away, Sally’s mother died. Sally was so upset that Ronnie was off getting married while his grandmother was dying that she vowed she would never speak to him again – and she didn’t until a year ago when Mark finally convinced her to re-connect with Ronnie, Emily and their two grandchildren.
Things are still a bit strained, and they now get together occasionally, but Sally is having a hard time forgiving Ronnie. People who know about the situation tend to agree with Sally that Ronnie should have changed his wedding plans. I’m curious what you think.
I can see why many would agree – at first blush – with Sally that Ronnie should have postponed his wedding because of his grandmother’s medical crisis, but I find myself wanting to be an advocate for Ronnie. He most likely, and correctly, anticipated one of three responses when he asked his mother for her advice about what to do about his wedding. The most obvious response would be that his mother would tell him that she would like him to postpone the wedding. In fact, many parents would probably agree with her that it would be disrespectful for him to be getting married while his grandmother was dying.
However, another possible response could be that because she, Sally, would be staying with her mother – and although this meant she would miss the cruise and wedding – she nevertheless wanted Ronnie and Emily to go ahead with their plans to get married. Granted, many would be uncomfortable with this option, but some parents would encourage going forward with the nuptials because it is their philosophical conviction that because life comprises both sad and joyous events and because we cannot always control their timing, there are times it makes sense to experience them simultaneously. In fact, for many, the experience of joyous nuptials may make dealing with the loss of a loved one easier.
The third possible response actually took place when Ronnie asked his mother what he should do, and she answered, “You need to do what you need to do,” implying that whatever he decided to do would be acceptable to her. “You decide” is all well and good. However, as Ronnie discovered, that was not the case. Sally, in fact, misled Ronnie: she wanted Ronnie to put his wedding on hold, but this is not what she communicated to him, so there was no discussion, no sharing of emotions or attempts at understanding each other’s position on the matter. This, sadly, is what happens when people are not honest and forthright in expressing themselves and expect others to figure out what they really mean – that is, in effect, read their minds. Taken to an extreme, it can become a form of “If you truly loved me, you would know what I really mean.”
Granted, Sally was responding to Ronnie’s question during an exceptionally emotional and difficult time, and perhaps the thought of Ronnie and Emily celebrating their wedding as her mother was dying may have struck her as totally imponderable. Her feelings are understandable, but her true feelings are not what she communicated. You asked me what I think. I think that Sally, and Sally alone, created the estrangement that caused her and the family so much unnecessary pain.
Further, you say she is having a hard time forgiving her son, and this suggests to me that she still sees herself as being on the receiving end of an injustice, rather than viewing herself as the initiator of the problem. The more appropriate question is: has her son forgiven her for her dishonesty in answering his question about what she would have preferred he do all those many years ago? At least the three generations are now spending time together, and that’s a start. Here’s hoping more open and honest communications are part of their interactions.
In closing, I want to share another family’s story involving an incapacitated grandmother and her granddaughter’s wedding. This particular grandmother fell as she was getting dressed on the morning of her granddaughter’s wedding, breaking her hip and ending up in the emergency room, tended to by her son-in-law. The grandmother insisted that her situation not ruin her granddaughter’s wedding, so with the son-in-law and two other family members sworn to secrecy, the wedding took place. People were told that the grandmother had an adverse reaction to her routine pills and would get to the wedding as soon as possible.
After the wedding and reception, everyone was told the truth about the grandmother’s absence. The bride, groom and wedding party decided that if the grandmother couldn’t come to the party, they would take the party to her. To the delight of the grandmother, as well as the staff and other patients, they arrived at the hospital in their full wedding garb. This wedding party did, indeed, do what they needed to do!
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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