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Open Mouth. Insert Foot Six Feet Into The Grave.

I love my mother-in-law “Karen”. She’s always been good to my husband and I. But she has a tendency to speak without thinking. She teases, and even though she means well, I don’t think she realizes that not everyone shares her kind of humor. This is especially true when it comes to my family. My mom and sister are both on the sensitive side. I am too, but I’ve had time to get use to Karen’s personality. A little background: My husband’s father (Karen’s husband) died when my husband was very young. My dad also lost his father to heart disease when he was relatively young as well and thus has always had a strong sense of mortality. My dad recently had a health scare with his heart, and even though he turned out okay, it left us all on edge. In my mother-in-law’s defense, I don’t think she was aware of my family’s history.

Because of their personality clash, my mom “Barbara” doesn’t care to be around Karen much. She’s always been civil to her; she just doesn’t like to be around her if she doesn’t have to be. However, we had an occasion recently to get both families together, and everything seemed to go just fine, but later that evening I got a call from my sister. Apparently a conversation took place between Karen and my father that was overheard by Mom and Sis, but not by me or my husband. Karen and Dad were talking about financing retirement, and Karen told my dad, “I get $1,000 every month and Barbara can too. Guess how? My husband died and now I get his pension.”

My jaw hit the floor when my sister told me. I’ve heard Karen make similar comments before but never in reference to another person dying. My mom and sister were understandably hurt by this comment and excused themselves soon after. My dad though wasn’t fazed by it, and when I called him later to apologize for Karen’s behavior, he assured me there was nothing to apologize for. I’m sure Karen’s comment was intended to be a joke, and she didn’t actually mean to suggest that my father should die so that my mother can get extra money. But it was thoughtless nonetheless. I still love my mother-in-law, but I don’t think our families will be getting together again anytime soon.   0222-11

{ 67 comments… add one }
  • Typo Tat April 7, 2011, 5:32 am

    Some people have a crude sense of humor while others are overly sensitive. I think OP’s solution to the problem is perfect – don’t put them together in one room.

  • Mjaye April 7, 2011, 5:53 am

    Maybe it is just me but this does not seem to bad to me. Clueless, stupid yes but not worthy of jaw dropping. More of MIL just being MIL.

  • Hal April 7, 2011, 6:34 am

    Karen must be told she is being offensive. Be as outspoken to her as she is to others. She has set the tone, follow her lead. She has no room to be hurt. Suggesting someone drop dead even as a joke isn’t funny. It is malice disguised.

  • Patti April 7, 2011, 6:40 am

    I guess I don’t see why anyone would be upset with this information. It seems like your Mother and sister are kind of looking for further excuses not to be around Karen.

  • Iris April 7, 2011, 7:16 am

    This wouldn’t personally faze me, but then I wouldn’t say it either so I guess I’m in the middle of these two camps. I think your solution of avoiding contact between them is probably the best one.

  • Susan T-O April 7, 2011, 7:23 am

    Patti, seriously? If someone you loved had survived what could have been a fatal event, be it heart attack or car wreck or whatever, you wouldn’t be upset if someone basically told you, “Gee, you could have so much money if only Personyouloved died!” Frankly, I would be upset if someone said that to me even if the person in question was in perfect health. To imply that anyone has more value dead than alive is astounding. I agree with Hal on this one; Karen needs to be told when she is being rude, not just now but each and every time. “It’s her personality, get used to it” only excuses the behavior.

  • Amber April 7, 2011, 7:30 am

    Huh. In my family, this kind of comment would immediately loosen the tension of a health scare. Laughter all around; acknowledgement of mortality without the haunting “My God, that must have been awful, I’ll keep you in my thoughts” conversation that can immediately bring down happy moods. Also, there’s a small superstition in my family that if you face the bad things head on, talking about all sorts of eventualities and maybes that are unpleasant, then maybe they’ll skip you completely as it won’t be a surprise. To not talk about illness, particularly in a humorous way, is to bring it upon yourself (if that makes sense.)

    I’m always interested when I see something on this site that shows an obvious difference in family etiquette. It fascinates me that so many families in the same country or area of the country, or even town, can have such different rules of conduct.

  • Margaret April 7, 2011, 7:38 am

    My dad died in an accident a few years ago. My parents had been amicably separated for years — e.g. my mom was still doing most of the financial stuff for both of them, and my dad would come to family dinners at my mom’s house, etc. Anyway, it was either a couple of weeks or a couple of months after my dad had died, when my mom said to me, “Well, one good thing about all this is that now I don’t have to find any retirement money for him.”

  • Zhoen April 7, 2011, 7:43 am

    Karen was making light of her own pain and grief by pointing out the one good part of her loss. Blunt, yes, but (depending on tone, of course) not necessarily rude. Maybe a humorous (to her) way of reminding him of his mortality, and how to provide some extra support for his widow. Because any of us can die at any moment. Pointing that out may be painful, but it’s not, (again depending on tone) in itself rude.

  • Kitty Lizard April 7, 2011, 7:44 am

    Susan T-O got it right. It’s not funny no matter how you cut it, particularly after a near-fatal event. she’s either going for shock value or she thinks she’s being funny (yeah, right.) I had a MIL like this.
    Tell her to cut it out or avoid her like the plague.

    Kitty L.

  • Anonymous Works For Me April 7, 2011, 7:48 am

    I would have wanted to be there. I could see where it might be offensive, “The best way to get retirement money is to hope that your spouse dies!!!” Although if it was mentioned more causally, I wouldn’t take offense to it. “Well, I have been saving for retirement for years, plus I have my husband’s pension to help.” I read the story more as the second and wouldn’t have been offended. In the very least, I would not have assumed that Karen WANTED her husband to die or that she was suggesting that a dead spouse is a great way to finance retirement.

  • Jay April 7, 2011, 8:18 am

    Eh, not that bad. She told the father that his wife could get his pension if HE died. Imho, if she’d said that to the WIFE, that would be worse. Telling someone (that you know and are socializing with) that they themselves should die is more obviously a joke, and the father took it as it was intended. My father and I used to joke about the optimum year for him to die to reduce estate taxes 🙂

  • Just Laura April 7, 2011, 8:20 am

    The person to whom the comment was said wasn’t offended. The people offended were the ones eavesdropping.
    You know what else is rude?
    I think the OP already had a great idea by minimizing time spent together.

  • Cindy April 7, 2011, 8:25 am

    A few details to keep in mind. Mom and Sis OVERHEARD the conversation between Karen and Dad. Meaning that Karen might not have known they were there. Dad didn’t seem fazed by it at all and even said it was not a big deal. Possibly his sense of humor is more on par with Karen’s which is why she felt comfortable making the joke. If the mother and sister were part of the conversation, the comment might not have been made. People seem to expect others to watch what they say when talking with someone “on the sensitive side,” but no one expects the sensitive person to “get a sense of humor.” Bottom line, if you so easily get offended by a conversation that doesn’t concern you, then don’t eavesdrop.

  • Chocobo April 7, 2011, 8:30 am

    Yeah, I guess for me/my family this isn’t really a huge faux pas. If Karen had already said other sympathetic things “Gosh, I hope you’re okay,” or “Take care!” or something along those lines, I would see this joke as just being a way to lighten the mood. Especially since she, better than any of you except for Dad, knows what it’s like to lose a spouse. I doubt she was being malicious.

    I agree with Patti…. given that Mom and Sis are already known not to care for Karen, it sounds like they’re taking greater offense than necessary to her (admittedly short-sighted) comment because of their preexisting feelings.

  • Elizabeth April 7, 2011, 8:53 am

    Sounds like it was a joke. That is just some people’s sense of humor.

  • Bint April 7, 2011, 9:08 am

    Mother and sister weren’t part of that conversation. Karen spoke to and about the father, who wasn’t bothered. Being hurt, ‘excusing themselves’, ringing the OP, the OP’s jaw hitting the floor…what a massive over-reaction from a possibly tasteless (but probably humorous) comment that didn’t offend the person concerned anyway.

  • yellowroseofchicago April 7, 2011, 9:10 am

    I don’t believe that Susan T-O read the story correctly. It was the mother-in-law who said it to the father, not to the mother. She was not saying “if your husband died, lucky for you.” I would agree that this more so sounds like a comment making light of her own situation that everyone in attendance knows about, which is the death of her own husband.

  • AS April 7, 2011, 9:15 am

    The comments section here seems representative of how dark humor, especially involving someone dying, can be viewed by people in different ways. Some people can take morbid “jokes” about real people dying to their stride (like OP’s father), whereas others are mortified y it. I don’t think one has to be too sensitive to be bothered by it.

    I personally don’t like this kind of humor much. But when you know a person, you know that they don’t mean bad, and like the OP, I’d probably not take it too personally if I know the person. As the OP said, MIL probably should realize that not everyone shares her sense of what to call “humor”. I think keeping them away from each other is a good way. It might also help for OP or her hubby to nicely let MIL know that maybe she should avoid cracking such jokes in front of OP’s family.

  • AS April 7, 2011, 9:16 am

    “mortified by it”. Forgot the “b”.

  • Hellbound Alleee April 7, 2011, 9:36 am

    I like Karen.

  • LilyG April 7, 2011, 9:41 am

    I’m with Amber-we say this kind of thing all the time. I’ve already told my husband when I die, I want to be “skinned and gutted like a deer-there better be only a couple of handsful of meat and a skull to cremate”. (In other words, I want to donate everything I possibly can with nothing left over to waste.) His family can’t even say the word “die”.

    Different people handle jokes about death different ways. I think the mother-in-law was guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different family.

  • Squashedfrog April 7, 2011, 9:45 am

    “My dad recently had a health scare with his heart, and even though he turned out okay, it left us all on edge. In my mother-in-law’s defense, I don’t think she was aware of my family’s history.”

    Have I got this right? That Karen didn’t actually KNOW that your father had had the health scare when she said that to him?

    In which case, Karen is probably a bit blunt, but I’d say it wasn’t a cruel, snarky or evil comment aimed to hurt anyone at your mum/dad in any way. Especially if your dad didn’t take it that way and he was the one Karen was speaking to at the time.

  • DGS April 7, 2011, 9:47 am

    I don’t think this is such a huge deal. It sounds like Dad wasn’t offended at all, and Karen was not intentionally rude, simply somewhat crude in her sense of humor, but Mom and Sister wanted an excuse to not be around her, so were willing to interpret her humor as monstrous. It is probably, a good idea to keep the two sides of the family apart from now on, but I do think that OP’s Mom and Sister need to lighten up. Gallows humor has a place, particularly if the recepient was not offended.

  • Bryton April 7, 2011, 9:58 am

    Non participants in a conversation have no right to be offended. It wasn’t their conversation. They may have missed important parts preceding or following the remark in question which would put it in a different context. POD to the poster that said eavesdropping is rude. So is gossip.

  • Lizajane April 7, 2011, 10:00 am

    Hal, Disguised malice, really? How did you get from any of this that Karen wanted the OPs dad to die?

    Laura, I couldn’t agree more.

  • Asharah April 7, 2011, 10:08 am

    I don’t think etiquette demands that one should censor private conversations to avoid offending snoopers and eavesdroppers. If the people actually involved in the conversation are not offended than that is sufficient.

  • Leslie Holman-Anderson April 7, 2011, 10:11 am

    Perhaps, as others here have hinted-at, sarcastic humor is a way Karen handles her own pain. This is exactly the sort of thing that might have been said in my family, where the more dire the situation, the more we laugh it off — while dealing with it just the same. And while it is of course important to take others’ feelings into consideration, these hyper-sensitive types are just another kind of Special Snowflake. Is just as bad manners to make everyone around you walk on eggshells as it is to stomp through in logger boots. Maybe worse, as the logger boots types don’t try to make you feel guilty for being so ‘insensitive.’

  • Yarnspinner April 7, 2011, 10:18 am

    See, in my family and among most of my friends, even those who have had big health scares or even personal losses, this would cause a big chuckle. I can see one of my friends, who underwent quadruple bypass turning to his wife and saying “Sorry to have disappointed you” to which she would reply “Well you can always rectify the error next time ’round.” Then there’d be chuckles and they’d hold hands and we’d move on.

    My mother made jokes like this all the time and so does my father…sometimes it scares me a little, but I get that they are using this to deal with fear and laughing at it makes it easier to deal with.

    On the other hand the thing that ticked me off when my mother died was my then SIL’s comment that she’d finally be able to do holidays the way she liked and wouldn’t have to work around my Mom’s illness. SIL has no sense of humor at all and meant this quite literally. I believe I said something like “Excuse me, I have to go outside and scream now” or some such. Really? The best part of my Mom dying is that you won’t have to accomodate a diabetic diet? Really?

    So maybe I have my limits.

  • Tyler April 7, 2011, 10:21 am

    It sounds to me like Mom and Sis are a wee bit oversensitive. Karen was just making a comment regarding her own life, and from the sound of the letter, there weren’t any hidden implications regarding Dad’s mortality. And besides, Dad is really the only one who I could see taking any sort of offense at this comment, and he obviously couldn’t have cared less, so I don’t see why Mom and Sis are making such a big deal about it.

  • Phitius April 7, 2011, 11:30 am

    I find it interesting how many people have jumped on the idea that the mom and sis were eavesdropping. OP says that they “overheard” the conversation. They may very well have been in the room as it took place, or walking back into the room as it was said.

    Squashedfrog – I read the post as meaning she knew about the recent health scare, but not about the loss of the OP’s father’s father.

    I do think it was just a joke and wasn’t meant to be hurtful.

    I can also see it being taken the wrong way either due to a lack of context (only hearing part of the conversation) or simply because some people are more sensitive to such things than others.

  • Pam April 7, 2011, 11:56 am

    My family also gets into “funeral humor”. My dad’s only suit was about 30 years old and he was proud of the fact that it still fit….we made a point to tell him that we were NOT going to bury him in his green pinstripe polka dot suit so he’d better go shopping : ) We had a lot of fun with that but his mother-in-law (my grandma) scolded us for talking like that to our dad. He thought it was fun. I think this kind of humor can be percieved as disrespectful to some….just plain fun to others.

  • Enna April 7, 2011, 11:59 am

    I think the OP’s jaw dropped when she heard what happened but then when she spoke to her Dad who wasn’t phased by it she was okay: maybe OP was concerned that her Dad was upset hence the orignal jaw drop? If the mother and sister were in the room then they weren’t evesdropping. If they had just walked into the room and heard by chance they were not evesdropping. Evesdropping is when you diliberaly overhear somone’s conversation.

    People do have a different sesnes of humour: maybe Karen just needs to be lovingly told that her comment was insentsative for OP’s Mum and Sister – sometimes things aren’t always taken in their correct context. I don’t see OP’s Mum and Sis being oversensitive and I don’t see MIL being overly rude or nasty. I can see the view of both camps and it’s always to meet in the middle and set up a better camp togehter.

  • Ista April 7, 2011, 12:11 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw the humor in this.

    I’m on the team that thinks eavesdroppers don’t have the right to be offended by conversations that don’t involve them.

  • ferretrick April 7, 2011, 12:18 pm

    “And besides, Dad is really the only one who I could see taking any sort of offense at this comment, and he obviously couldn’t have cared less, so I don’t see why Mom and Sis are making such a big deal about it.”

    Because they’re drama queens? Just a guess.

  • ashley April 7, 2011, 12:27 pm

    @ Just Laura I have to respectfully disagree with the eavesdropping thing. Theres a difference between eavesdropping and just happening to overhear things nearby. Eavesdropping is more intentional and the article doesn’t really indicate that they were intentionally listening to the conversation.
    That and I think the OP’s mom and sister need to talk to Karen about how they feel with some of her jokes. Karen might see that she is offending some people and may watch what she says around certain people next time.

  • phoenix April 7, 2011, 12:55 pm

    Slight reality check…the Mom and Sis weren’t necessarily “eavesdropping” or “snooping” as so many have said. If you’re in a home, you can actually hear comments that aren’t directed to you. Or are folks implying that it’s rude to hear something you weren’t meant to and we should walk around with our hands on our ears just in case stray sounds reach us?

    Senses of humour are relative. But in my book, if you know one FAMILY is composed of more sensitive members, you should probably avoid such dark humour in general around them. That’s just being polite, in my book. Just because Dad takes it okay, that doesn’t mean Mom in the next room is now bound to find it okay too.

    I personally have a very macabre sense of joking, but I’ve never gotten angry because other folks are sensitive or acted as if it’s their problem for not being as edgy as me. I can not say it, they can’t not hear it. To act otherwise is to be a conversational bully. Claiming that other people are too sensitive always smacks a bit self-important to me, as if the person who is less easily shocked is somehow “right” or more enlightened.

    It probably is best if these groups just don’t socialize much, and bring their thicker skin/smaller mouths with them. They just aren’t made to mix socially.

  • Skoffin April 7, 2011, 1:01 pm

    I don’t think having a darker sense of humour automatically makes anyone a ‘bad person’. My immediate family has such humour, whereas other relatives do not. When my own older brother was in the hospital for over a year I’d make jokes to him about it, knowing that he could handle it and he’d find it much preferable to any serious talk over what was happening to him. There was no hidden malice there. I did not want my brother to die or suffer even though any jokes I made might have suggested as such, the jokes were to help the both of us pull through the only way we knew how to deal with it.

    I think the reactions to Karen were over the top. From the sounds of it she did not even know that the Father was in ill health, and the mother and sister were eavesdropping on the conversation. Perhaps Karen knew that the father could see the joke for what it was and therefore felt comfortable saying it to him. She couldn’t have taken in account of the mother and sisters feelings as they were not part of the conversation.

    Everyone has a different sense of humour with different limits. We all need to remember that. There is no ‘wrong’ sense of humour, merely a wrong way of expressing that humour and knowing your audience.

  • Just Laura April 7, 2011, 1:57 pm

    Perhaps they merely overheard, rather than intended to secretly listen, and I appreciate your correction. The point, however, is that it was an A/B conversation, and they reported this conversation of which they were not a part to still another person who was not a part of it. As another poster stated, it sounds like gossip. So while I may excuse them from eavesdropping, I cannot excuse the gossip.

    That and I think the OP’s mom and sister need to talk to Karen about how they feel with some of her jokes. Karen might see that she is offending some people and may watch what she says around certain people next time.

    The people involved in the A/B conversation were not offended, so I hardly think that Karen should be censored based on the delicate feelings of those who weren’t even privy to the whole discussion.

  • Wink-n-Smile April 7, 2011, 2:19 pm

    Giving her the benefit of the doubt, and understanding the possibility that Mom and Sis only overheard that one part of the conversation, it could have been more innocent.

    We know they were discussing retirement finances. Perhaps he had said something about HIS retirement being well in hand, but his wife’s being shaky, should he predecease her. In that case, her comment that she gets $1000/month, and the wife could, as well, because of the pension, could have been her way of easing his mind about his wife’s future.

    After all, many pensions end at the pensioner’s death. So, he might be able to retire, but when he dies, his wife would be left only to her own devices, Social Security, and whatever they had in savings. It all depends on how HIS retirement plan is set. Before he had his heart attack, he probably planned (if at all) for them both to go together in a car accident, or something. Having nearly died, and nearly left a widow, that would have changed his perspective.

    While it is gracious to avoid jokes about death (unless you’re in a Gothic group, who enjoy the macabre), it is also gracious to avoid taking offense from an overheard snippet, taken out of context.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that she WAS being tasteless, but there IS that possibility she wasn’t, and eavesdroppers (rude, in themselves) really should counteract their own rudeness by giving the benefit of the doubt.

  • Wink-n-Smile April 7, 2011, 2:41 pm

    True, they may not have been eavesdropping, but merely passing by at an unfortunate moment. How many times have we seen that happen in movies or TV shows? And it is always misinterpreted in the most tragic or comic way, depending on the show.

    At one point, I maintained a collection of interesting snippets I’d overheard. I enjoyed filling in the blanks with my own imagination. It was a fun activity, as I learned there were SO MANY different ways to fill in the blanks, and it taught me not to assume what the conversation actually was.

    It’s also a great writing excercise for those who want to incorporate such scenes into their work.

  • Allie April 7, 2011, 3:14 pm

    I don’t think this comment was bad. The way it’s reported suggests that Karen and the OP’s dad were talking about financial planning for the future, and she merely pointed out that if he died, his wife would get his pension. It sounds like mom and sis took the snippet of what they heard out of context and blew it way out of proportion. In addition, the OP says she doesn’t think Karen knew about the family history, so I don’t think it can be assumed that she was trying to be malicious. Personally, I don’t see that Karen said anything wrong.

  • Alexis April 7, 2011, 3:15 pm

    If she’s old enough to have a dughter-in-law, she’s old enough to know she’s being tactless. I have a gallows sense of humor too. I save it for people who are similarly wired. I was a tactless teenager, but I outgrew it. I wouldn’t expect people to still be saying ‘that’s just how she is’ about me my entire adult life. That’s just excusing rudeness. Surely MIL must have SOME sense that she is offending people, she just doesn’t do anything about it.

  • Sharon April 7, 2011, 3:27 pm

    @ Just Laura -BINGO!

    It is best to keep them apart because the mother in law is one of those folks who cannot make conversaton without saying something goofy and the OP’s mom and sister are always going to be crouching in the back ground “accidentally” overhearing her and claiming offense.

    You have to pick your battles, people. When it comes to a MIL saying offensive things this is pretty mild… some folks endure far worse.

  • Sharon April 7, 2011, 3:37 pm

    @Enna “Eavesdropping” is when you over hear part of a conversation maybe by accident and you start LISTENING with intent to get all the words being said.

  • Chicken April 7, 2011, 3:40 pm

    I have to ask, what kind of a man is Dad? Is he the sort who takes extreme pride in providing for his family? If so Karen might have actually thought she was complimenting her late spouse on his estate planning and suggesting your father do the same. I know my fiancee wouldn’t be offended if anyone said this to him, he’s 32 and has life insurance, disability insurance, and a will. He’s paranoid something will happen to him and I’ll be left with no financial security. He would have heard this story and complimented her on having a husband who cared so much for her, not been offended. Perhaps the OP is just a little too sensitive, so long as the person she was talking to didn’t have an issue I don’t see the problem.

  • livvy April 7, 2011, 4:36 pm

    While OP’s mom & sister may not have been actively eavesdropping, they were not privy to the whole conversation either, and very likely took the comment out of context, especially considering that the OP’s dad, didn’t take offence. Perhaps the dad had been expressing his concern about providing for his wife, who might outlive him? Regardless, the “overhearers” seem like drama queens to me, as they deemed themselves to be so offended as to have to turn this into gossip, and to bad-mouth the woman to her DIL. When I think of etiquette, I think about intent – was their intent to be kind? To offer practical advice, or to remedy a situation? No, it was to gossip and vent, and prehaps self-righteously say how much more tactful or classy they themselves are than MIL. MIL’s intent cannot be known, but likely it was kinder, or at least not filled with snark. MIL is the lesser offender in my mind.

  • karmabottle April 7, 2011, 4:58 pm

    Hmmm… I tend to think your mom and sister ARE a bit oversensitive. The family “history” you’ve described is a pretty average story for many people, so I don’t think they even can really justify being overly apalled. Sorry they felt that way though.

  • HonorH April 7, 2011, 6:11 pm

    Mom and Sis are oversensitive–but I can totally understand why. Right now, nothing having to do with the possible death of Dad is funny. Overhearing Karen’s comment (very easy to do when you’re all in the same space) upset them. I don’t see they’re doing anything wrong.

    Karen, not knowing the background, indulged a moment of dark humor. Not necessarily rude, but you really have to know your audience for that kind of thing. She could have been more discreet. Overall, though, I don’t think she behaved badly. This was just the confluence of some issues. It happens.

  • jjoy April 7, 2011, 7:24 pm

    Karen needs to be made aware of her audience. Sensitive people (like myself) often have a hard time telling the insensitive when they cross the line. (But I don’t want to hurt their feelings! -we think)
    People need to know when they have crossed the line, so the responsibility lies on the hurt people to tell Karen “Hey I didn’t like what you said.”
    Now if she gets all huffy and offended then we have a problem.

    Second observation: why is daughter in law apologizing for mother in law? And does she do this often? Sounds like Daughter in law has some issues with always being the peacemaker. This isn’t good for anyone. People need to take care of their own mistakes and their own feelings.

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