QUESTION: I was just getting ready to begin online college classes when my cousin, Aaron, who was my best friend, lost his life in a motorcycle accident. I’m devastated! We did so many things together like gardening and hiking. We were both concerned about Mother Earth, and I still am. I want to take a year off from college to do something in his memory, like work in a community garden and give the vegetables to those in need. My parents want me to stay in college. They don’t seem to understand how upset I am at Aaron’s death even though I’ve told them many times. I cry myself to sleep every night.
He was only 23. I’m also 23 and can make my own decisions and, at the same time, I don’t want my parents to be unhappy with me. I would be sitting out my senior year. What can I tell my parents to help them understand how important this is to me?
~ Brokenhearted Cousin
Dear Brokenhearted Cousin,
I cannot imagine the pain of the loss of your cousin. My own cousin is my best friend so my heart and prayers are with you as you mourn Aaron. It seems like even in your far-too-short time together that you have made a lifetime’s worth of memories. But to get to your question.
It is difficult to wrestle through times when what we think is best and what our parents believe is best come into conflict. I believe the Bible says enough to give us wisdom but does not say enough to give us a command in this particular area.
In the second book of the Bible, Exodus, it says that we are to “honor our father and mother,” which when we are children it almost always means to obey them. However, as we grow into adulthood, honoring them does not look the same because we do not need to always obey them. But it still does mean that helping them understand why you are deciding to do what you are doing is important. I can tell in your question that you see that.
As far as helping them understand the importance of honoring your cousin, I believe that the best first step is to let them know of your plans for college. They probably see this time as you sacrificing the long-term goals of your life for (what they see as) a short-term ideal. I am hopeful that the reason they are so hesitant to let you do this is because they honestly want what is best for you. If you can help them see that this way of honoring your cousin is not being decided without a plan on how to still accomplish what you had set out to do, that may go a long way in putting their concerns at ease.
Rev. Jeff Blanton
Dear Brokenhearted Cousin,
Your parents may not remember what it was like to be 23 and lose someone so close.
When 23, thankfully, most of us are not accustomed to losing people, especially a young person who is your best friend and also a cousin. He was someone you expected to go through life with. He was someone you actually were going through life with on a daily basis.
You are grieving. His death was sudden and unexpected. You are not in a normal state. If he had died of an illness you would have grieved and had a chance to at least try to prepare your self for this loss.
When a person loses someone close, at any age, if they are asking me as a rabbi how to navigate this devastating and often lonely ‘place,’ I share with them the notion that big decisions are not a good idea at this time. Big decisions are what call you because you are hurting deeply and want to change that as much and as quickly as you can. You want to heal. You want to fix the large hole in your spiritual heart.
Healing takes time. The pain won’t be over all at once. More likely, it will come and go, sometimes sharp and unmistakable, sometimes emerging when least expected as a dull ache that might overtake you without your realizing it until you look back with the benefit of hindsight.
Of course you cannot go on with your life as though nothing happened.
We live in a world of dualities. How about this? You continue your studies but at a slower rate that would leave you time to contribute to saving the planet, ideally with others of the same goal, and participating in a community garden as well. This would honor Aaron and enlarge his memory. Continuing your classes would give you a through line to the future and your parents’ hope that you will complete your studies. If you stretch out your college, perhaps you will have the opportunity to have some classes in person in the future and get to know other students. You might have the chance to have a more complete college experience thereby enriching your life overall!
I wish for you a complete healing over time. Keep making your world bigger and more inclusive. Realize that in time you will be able to construct a good life for yourself and in the meantime you are going through this loss that weighs on your heart, but won’t keep you down for long.
I am sending love to your tender heart.
Rabbi Janet Bieber
QUESTION: When I was a child, family relationships were not a problem. My mom got along great with my dad’s parents and my dad got along great with my mom’s parents. We were one big happy family! My current situation is very different. Now I’m married to a man whose mother does not like me.
A little history: my husband dated a woman for two years before I met him. His mom really liked the woman. We were married six months after we met and we’ve now been married three years. Our interests are practically identical. I’ve done everything I can to get my mother-in-law to like me, but it’s not working. She’s civil to me at family gatherings, and I’m grateful for that, but I don’t know what else I can do. My husband has talked to her about this and she always tells him she wishes he had married the other woman.
Any ideas to win her over or shall I just give up?
~ Unhappy Daughter-in-Law
Dear Unhappy Daughter-in-Law,
First, how blessed you are to have had such a loving upbringing within your extended family. It certainly laid the foundation for how you expected your future in-law relationships to be … which is why what you are experiencing now is painful and disappointing.
I had a very similar experience in that my father didn’t accept my choice for a husband and refused to attend our wedding. We too had only been together for a short period of time before we married. It was my mother, who had actually really preferred my first husband, who convinced my father to attend the wedding. He did his best to be cordial and my mother did her best with acceptance. While my dad never fully embraced my husband, like your mother-in-law, he was always civil and respectful. My husband chose not to let it bother him and treated them as family, calling them “Mom and Dad” and giving them both respect. Eventually my mother came around and they became very close.
I share my own story because I can understand how you’re feeling. You can’t make someone accept you. You can’t make someone love you or even like you. But you can be true to yourself. What your mother-in-law may be experiencing may actually have nothing to do with you directly. She may still be feeling grief and the loss of someone she misses. Every relationship ends at some point and that loss can be very painful. We may not take into consideration the effect it has on those around us. Everyone grieves differently and she may not be ready to embrace someone new yet.
Instead of trying harder to win her over, open your heart to compassion and forgiveness. Meet her where she is with understanding and love. She may not accept you now, or ever, but that is her decision. And you can decide to have a happy family now. Focus on all the good you do have: a loving husband, lots of interests in common, and a life that you’re building together. And I would say you could “give up!” Give it up to God and allow things to unfold in the most loving way!
Rev. Dr. Ellen Faith
Dear Unhappy Daughter-in-Law,
Thank you for reaching outside yourself to seek fresh perspective and advice. Some of my most difficult relational hurdles in life have been guided by the advice and wisdom of others – it’s so much better than navigating alone.
You seem like a person who values harmony within healthy relationships – especially in the context of family – which is probably why this invisible strain has created some sort of internal disruption within your heart. It has created an uncomfortable relational gap that has left you waiting, wondering, wrestling and whizzing through the relational hamster-wheel to win and earn your mother-in-law’s affections and approval. God has designed us and hardwired us for healthy life-giving relationships! That is why we feel less-than-whole when crucial relationships are dysfunctional (don’t function correctly).
How taxing! I cannot imagine how tired and exhausted you must feel. Human performance – your performance – certainly has its limits. And only you know when you’ve reached that deflated limit. Performance in relationships over time creates power struggles, leaving us tired and unsatisfied.
You don’t have a choice about whether or not others (including your mother-in-law) have power in your life. They do, she does … but you do have a choice as to what kind of power she and others are going to have. How you manage this power makes all the difference between just surviving or thriving in your relationship. No matter what you do you cannot have mastery over your dear mother-in-law’s affections, but you can become a master at choosing how you deal with and define this particular relationship – continuing to love her, yet not allowing her lack of affection to dictate your internal world as well as the relational atmosphere. It’s super important to remember that you can still love her without expecting to be loved by her.
Someone wise once told me “disappointment is the gap between expectation and reality.” Living and operating in the disappointment gap can sometimes cause us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What do I mean by that? You asked “Any ideas to win her over or shall I just give up?” What if it’s neither? What you can [do is] readjust your expectations of her and yet still continue to love her, to pray for her, to show kindness at every family gathering and to eventually overwhelm her own “disappointment gap” with a particular kind of grace that no longer expects her to respond in the way you’d like, but ultimately puts the burden of transformation on God’s shoulders. Ideally, these two realities can simultaneously exist: how things are in this moment and how you would like them to be. But it’s all in what you expect and how you define the outcomes. It’s important to remember that she too is also living in the “disappointment gap,” battling with her own unmet expectations that have resulted in this relational disruption between you both. But it doesn’t have to stay this way for you – no matter what decisions she chooses to make.
I don’t want to assume what you have and have not tried in order to connect with your mother-in-law but how about calling her and asking to see her by yourself – with no involvement from her son (your hubby)? Taking her favorite coffee or tea with some delicious pastries over her place and talking lovingly but openly with her. Again – approaching her with hope yet leaving the outcome to God and time … maybe sending her flowers on her birthday or on Mother’s Day. There are so many creative ways to show love without going back into that vicious performance cycle of changing her.
I am sure that over time love will win her heart over. Transformational change takes more time for some than others. Keep pursuing love, continually handing the burden over to God, and reflecting the love that is within your heart.
Grace and Peace,
Pastor Emanuel David